Canon EOS 5d Mark III - Opposite of Dante's View at Sunrise

I have owned my Canon EOS 5d Mark II for over three years and I have been waiting for a new body to supplement it. I was waiting pretty patiently for the replacement to come out for the 5dII. My first reaction was that the price was a bit high as compared to prior Canon models. I will also admit that after the Nikon D800 specs were leaked that I thought long and hard about whether or not I would purchase the 5d Mark III now or wait for a higher resolution camera from Canon that I assume will be available in the coming months. Feeling like it was time for a new body, I bit the bullet and purchased the 5d Mark III. I received the body from Hunts Camera just 24 hours before the Brooklyn Mutt Show and within 24 hours of the ship date that had been published at the Canon Rumors site.

The features that I was most excited about with the 5d Mark III were the auto focus, frame rate and new high ISO capabilities that Canon was claiming were improved over the 5d Mark II. I was happy about new additions to the camera’s feature set that included improved weather sealing, 100% View Finder, and the dual card media slots. While I would have preferred dual compact flash cards, the additional SD card is fine. Also, I was pretty stoked about the addition of the in-camera level and the viewfinder grid. All of these features promise to make the 5d Mark III a much better tool than the 5d Mark II.

Auto Focus: Having shot with Canon since the original Canon EOS d30, Auto Focus in the professional arena has always been a significant issue. Sometimes I don’t remember how we actually did it. I still remember shooting weddings and looking for any sort of contrast points on the groom’s tux or on the bride as a means of getting an acceptable focus lock. The ST-E2 was also an invaluable aid. Coupled with really poor low ISO capabilities, it meant that we spent a lot of time shooting flash (not a style that I like for wedding photography). While Canon has addressed this issue somewhat over the years, there is no question that the 5d Mark II’s Auto Focus mechanism was a bit of a disappointment – particularly as the next crop frame camera (the 40d) blew the 5d Mark II’s AF out of the water.

Ladies and gentleman, Canon has finally produced a camera that will focus pretty much all of the time and without any problems. Shooting dogs can be very challenging for auto focus systems – particularly dark dogs. I have never been so happy with an auto focus system. Even when shooting landscapes, the wide autofocus array allows you to easily find a target for accurate focus without having to recompose the camera.

Canon EOS 5d Mark III, ISO 125, 1/200th of a second at F14, 70mm.

Canon EOS 5d Mark III, ISO 100, 1/160th of a second at F13, 70mm.


I typically shoot in studio lighting at ISOs 100 or 200. When I shoot weddings and special events, I often shoot at ISO 1600 or 3200 and in a pinch ISO 6400 as I am shooting available light. The 5d Mark II was really good in this regard – and a huge improvement over older cameras that I have owned. The 5d Mark III though has been heralded as being a huge improvement in this area – particularly from jpegs. The claim is that the Canon EOS 5d Mark III will shoot ISO 102,000 and that files are ‘about two stops cleaner’ when shooting in jpg over a 5d Mark II. That is pretty amazing.

As a raw shooter, I don’t really care about any software improvements that Canon has been able to produce (unless they can be replicated by others). When I do shoot jpg files, they are usually compressed and small in size. I have read that many others do not feel that the 5d Mark III images are that much better than the 5d Mark II’s. I am pretty happy with the over-all performance of this camera's High ISO settings. These next four photos were all taken during the Brooklyn Mutt Show. They were done in available light as I could not use flash during the event.

The following two images are taken at ISO 12,800. The first is without any noise reduction. The second is with noise reduction in Capture One. Please note that both images are 100% crops.

The following two images are taken at ISO 25,600. The first is without any noise reduction. The second is with noise reduction in Capture One. Please note that both images are 100% crops. Please forgive the color balance difference in the two images.

As far as I am concerned, the images at ISO 12,800 are surprisingly usable. Even though there is a ton of softening going on in the image, even the ISO 25,600 shots could still be used in the right circumstances.

Frame Rate and Buffer: When Canon announced the 5d III, one of the huge ballyhoos was new 6 fps frame rate. As someone who shoots mostly portraits, I don’t typically need 6 fps. My interests in this area were mostly juvenile. I imagine that for the Photo Journalists on a budget and for the wildlife photographers that this is a great feature. There have been times when it has been handy though. For example, the Starship Enterprise was flying over Manhattan last week (I always wanted to say that) and I wanted to capture the moment before it became a part of the Intrepid Museum here in New York. I rattled off several shots of the Enterprise as it looped around my building here in Northern Manhattan. Pretty cool.

Canon EOS 5d Mark III with Sigma 120-300 F2.8 OS Lens and 1.4x Adapter. Settings: ISO 400, 1/2500th of Second at F8, 204mm.

Canon EOS 5d Mark III with Sigma 120-300 F2.8 OS Lens and 1.4x Adapter. Settings: ISO 400, 1/2500th of Second at F8, 420mm.

Dual Card Media:
During the shoot, I accidentally had the camera set to shoot on the SD Card as opposed to the CF Card. My CF Cards are 32 GB Lexar Cards. They vary in speed from 300x to 600x (depending on the card). My SD Cards are Lexar 400x. For some reason, the SD cards do not seem to write as quickly as the Compact Flash Cards – even though the 400x speed rating should be ‘super fast.’ I found that I filled the buffer much faster than I do with the Compact Flash card as the primary shooting vehicle. When shooting with a 400x CF Card, I can typically get about 20 frames onto a card before the buffer fills. With the SD card, I got less than half that many – though I was admittedly more than able to keep firing as needed while shooting the event. The buffer empties very quickly. I am still trying to figure out if there is something I have been doing wrong on my side.

The other complaint I have with the dual card system is that if you open your card bay and take out a card, the camera defaults to the other card that is loaded. So, if you take out your CF card and dump your files and replace it with a new CF card, the camera has taken the liberty to jump to the SD card even though you may not have intended it. That caused quite an embarrassment at the Brooklyn Mutt Show as I could not figure out where the photos of the dog I was taking were going. “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

Focus Tracking:
Prior to the 5d Mark III, I never bothered with the AI Servo mode. Honestly, I am not sure why Canon even bothered putting it on the cameras. It was more frustrating than anything else. I realize that there are others with greater skill sets than mine who have used the older 5dII with AI Servo. However, better them than me. My 5d II essentially stayed on One Shot mode the entire time I owned it. With the new 5d Mark III though, the focus is so fast, and the tracking so effective, it really is now a valuable tool. It really works.

Canon EOS 5d Mark III with Sigma 120-300 F2.8 OS Lens. Settings: ISO 1600, 1/3200th of Second at F8, 300mm.

Canon EOS 5d Mark III with Sigma 120-300 F2.8 OS Lens. Settings: ISO 1600, 1/3200th of Second at F8, 300mm.

As a portrait photographer, one of the things that always annoyed me about the 5d Mark II is how loud the shutter was. The new 5d Mark III is much quieter. But wait, there’s more. The new 5d Mark III has something called a ‘silent’ shutter feature, which makes the shutter virtually silent. It is amazing and I fully expect to be using it when I shoot events in the future. The new shutter is rated at about 150,000 cycles. I figure that I am approaching that number on the 5d II currently, and it is still going strong. Some day, I expect to have to send it to Canon for a new shutter.

Auto White Balance: I am a bit ashamed to admit that I have not been using the 5d Mark III on auto white balance. I am almost always shooting in pre-sets these days, so I cannot effectively evaluate the auto white balance. I always felt that the AWB on the 5d Mark II was acceptable.

In the Field:

Dante's View: Death Valley, California. Canon EOS 5d Mark III with Canon28-70 F2.8 Lens. Settings: ISO 400, 1/13th of Second at F18, 70mm. Mirror Lock Up was used.

I recently had the opportunity to take the 5d Mark III to Death Valley with Steve Kossack and his workshop. Death Valley must be lucky for me as it always seems that I am bringing new gear with me there. It was here that I got the opportunity to put the 5d Mark III through its paces as a landscape tool.

First things first, the positives. The new viewfinder is spectacular. While it is not head and shoulders above the 5d Mark II, it is definitely better. It is bright, and you can definitely tell the difference in viewfinder coverage. Also, I definitely like the new grid feature. It is a huge improvement that makes composition easier. It is also nice that you don’t have to purchase new AF screens in order to implement the grid.

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley California - Canon EOS 5d Mark III with Canon 28-70 F2.8 Lens. Settings: ISO 200, .1 Second at F16, 28mm. Mirror Lock Up was used.

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley California - Canon EOS 5d Mark III with Canon 28-70 F2.8 Lens. Settings: ISO 200, 1/13 Second at F16, 35mm. Mirror Lock Up was used.

Somehow, I forgot my bubble level and had to use the camera’s built in level for the entire workshop. It definitely works. My problem with it has to do with my own neurosis. When shooting with a bubble level, it is never really ‘perfect’ so you get over the fact that level is ‘nearly perfect.’ With the new digital level, it shows you ever single degree and which directions the camera is off by and it really does slow down my working style. Having said that, it really does work and it is implemented very well in the camera system.

One feature that has not been raved enough about is the movement of the Depth of Field Preview button from the left side of the camera to the right side. This means that I can now hold a Neutral Density Filter card with my left hand and use the DOF button more easily with the right hand. It makes the camera much easier to use in that regard.

Mesquite Dunes, Stovepipe Wells - Death Valley, California. Canon EOS 5d Mark III with Canon 70-200 F2.8 Lens w 1.4x Converter. Settings: ISO 200, 1/20th of Second at F14, 280mm. Mirror Lock Up was used.

The Mesquite Sand Dunes near Stovepipe Wells is one of those places where you can really challenge a sensor. Much of the drama that is generated at the sand dunes are in the contrasts between light and dark. In the 7 to 10 minutes of ‘great light’ after the sun rises, this drama is easy to capture. Photographing the dunes in the pre-dawn light, however, provides very flat images without shadows or highlights. Creating this drama by collapsing the shadows and highlights definitely generates shadow noise. Fortunately, it seems that Capture One does a pretty good job at mitigating this in the software. One might ask why one would want to re-produce these flat pre-dawn images and the answer is easy. Sometimes I forget to re-create all of my practice compositions when the sun pops and I really like some of the practice compositions when I look at them on the screen.

Outside of these situations, I find that the sensor performs as expected. I never really had a complaint about the 5dII and I likewise have no complaint about the 5dIII. If I am not really punishing the image, it performs exactly as I want it to. There is, however, definitely something to wanting a bit more flexibility from the images produced by the camera. This is not to say that the Canon sensor is not very good – only to say that I think that sensor development between the 5d Mark II and the 5d Mark III may not be quite what would be hoped for in terms of dynamic range.

Aguereberry Point, Death Valley, California. Canon EOS 5d Mark III, Canon 16-35 F2.8 Lens, ISO 200, 1/13th of a Second at F20, 19mm.

Camping in Death Valley also allowed me to test the battery on the 5d Mark III. While it is rated at 950 photos, I got exactly 621 out of mine before it died. This was with a bit of chimping and bit more of using the live view as a focus aid. Not bad – but it still makes me long for the grip which I still cannot get. I was using the Live View a lot during the Death Valley trip because I was playing with Tilt/Shift Lenses and I find that the live view makes for a nice big screen to help determine that everything looks properly ‘tilted and shifted.’

On that note, the live view and the new control interface is really neat. It is much more efficient than what is on the 5dII. Controls are very logically laid out and it is very easy to get from point a to point b using the physical interface. This is a good thing because I find the menu system to be just bloated. There are so many sub menus that you pretty much are forced to create a custom menu. This is the first time I have ever had to do that on a dSLR. Now, I wish that Canon would give you TWO pages for your custom menu – not just one.

Resolution, at 22 megapixels, provides me beautiful 16x24s without any interpolation. Having seen Steve Kossack’s material in his house, I have seen 20x30s that are just spectacular. Stitching photos, as I am wont to do, I have produced 16x72 inch photos that I am really proud of. One of which, of the Manhattan Skyline, is now hanging in my office.

The Race Track, Death Valley, California. Canon EOS 5d Mark III, Canon TS-24, ISO 100, 1/30 of a Second at F20, 24mm.

The Race Track, Death Valley, California. Canon EOS 5d Mark III, Canon 16-35 F2.8 Lens, ISO 100, 1/200th of a Second at F11, 27mm.


The Canon EOS 5d Mark III presents as an evolutionary model rather than an revolutionary one. It sounds like Canon was really listening to feedback from people like me who said to make the next camera more usable and not focus on additional resolution. If I look at the 5d Mark III in that vain, it is an unadulterated success. However, the 5d Mark III reminds me of how the Canon EOS 30d was an upgrade to the 20d. Like the 30d, the Canon EOS 5d Mark III provides a host of usability features that truly makes it a better camera than its predecessor while leaving the core engine essentially the same. As I recall, I skipped the 30d because of this.

A lot has also happened in the last three years. Canon’s preeminence in the full frame market has been significantly challenged by Nikon. Nikon recently announced the Nikon D800, a 36.2 megapixel camera, which by all accounts has spectacular image quality. The dynamic range is also considered better than the Canon 5d Mark III. To boot, the Nikon D800 is priced more than $500 less than the Canon EOS 5d Mark III. At $3500, the 5d Mark III is practically $1400 more than a 5d Mark II. Throw in the problems with the light leakage issue that has been publicized and all of a sudden the 5d Mark III looks even less attractive. For someone with a host of Canon lenses looking to buy a new camera body, that is a pretty big pill to swallow.

There are rumors that Canon will announce a 3 level body come this Fall with significantly higher resolution. However, the rumors of a 3 series body have existed for years. I am very hesitant to make (or not make) purchases based upon a rumor. If you need a tool, then you really need it. The more appropriate question then is whether or not you would be better served purchasing an older Canon EOS 5d Mark II for significantly less money and banking the excess until Canon comes out with a higher spec’d (megapixels) body. I think that given how much noise has been made in the various gear head forums will mean that Canon will produce something sooner rather than later and that the 3D may finally become a reality.

Before I sound as if I am panning the 5d Mark III, let me clearly say that I definitely really like this camera. It does everything I need it to do - and more. I also suggest that it is odd that I am even mentioning the Nikon D800 in this review or rumors about the vaporware EOS 3D. I have never mentioned a competitive product while doing a review before, attempting to judge a product in its own right. It is just that the D800 is such a huge entry into the market that it colors pretty much everything as a result - and that is pretty wild if you think about it. The end result is that I find myself ambivalent about a camera that I really like as a tool. That is - I hope you agree - somewhat irrational. My guess is that my feelings mirror many of the same themes that have been raised in the different gear head forums. The trick is distinguishing what are legitimate gripes versus more existential issues. So, I own the 5d Mark III and choose to get rid of the existential angst. It is a great camera - even though I think it might be priced a bit higher than it should.

The End.

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James Morrissey
Nature, Wildlife and Pet Photography Forum

PS Just a friendly reminder that the images and text contained in this article are (c) 2012, James Morrissey.