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Canon EOS 5D Mark II - 21.03 million image pixels, 1080p video
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 | by Rob Galbraith
Canon has announced the EOS 5D Mark II, an update of the oldest camera in its digital SLR lineup and one that the company promises will deliver the best image quality and lowest noise of any EOS model to date. Headlining the 5D Mark II is a 21.03 million image pixel full-frame CMOS sensor that is derived from the sensor in the EOS-1Ds Mark III, but with several improvements meant to improve shadow rendering and noise levels at all ISO settings.

The refined sensor is also at the heart of Canon's first foray into digital SLR video: the 5D Mark II can record clips at 1920 x 1080 pixel (1080p) resolution, with sound (captured via either a built-in mono mic or through an external mic connected to the camera's stereo mic jack).

The remainder of the 5D Mark II is largely an amalgam of the original 5D, including its viewfinder, AF system and various mechanical components (all with slight refinements), and the recently-introduced EOS 50D, with which the new camera shares a similar control layout, 3.0 inch (diagonal), 920,000 dot rear LCD and DIGIC 4 processor.

The EOS 5D Mark II is slated to ship towards the end of November 2008 at an expected street price of US$2699 in the U.S. Here's a look at what could be a powerhouse new digital SLR for those who need lots of pixels and HD video in one body.

Big Picture: Canon EOS 5D Mark II (Photo courtesy Canon)

Canon EOS 5D Mark II feature summary

Features of the new camera include:

Body The 5D Mark II's body is similar in appearance to the EOS 50D, only larger and without a built-in flash. They share a similar control layout on the top and back, utilize the same 3.0 inch (diagonal), 920,000 dot rear LCD and both have a Type C HDMI video port on the side. While the 5D Mark II may look like an oversized 50D, on the inside it has more in common with the 5D and EOS-1Ds Mark III, as will become clear in the paragraphs ahead.

Clean Sweep: The Canon EOS 5D Mark II's sensor package (Photo courtesy Canon)
Sensor With a size of 24 x 36mm, 21.03 million image pixels and a pixel pitch of 6.4m square, the 5D Mark II's CMOS sensor offers the identical pixel count in a sensor that's identical in size to the full-frame EOS-1Ds Mark III. The 5D Mark II's sensor also features the same light-gathering area within each pixel (called the fill ratio) and same microlens coverage over each pixel as the company's current flagship.

To achieve what Canon is saying will be the highest image quality and lowest noise ever to emerge from a Canon EOS digital SLR, they introduced several refinements: the array of red, green and blue coloured filters over the sensor have been made more transmissive, which effectively bumps up the sensor's light sensitivity, plus they tweaked the way the sensor's signal (the light it has gathered during the exposure) is amplified and then read out.

Canon is showing some serious confidence in the 5D Mark II's image sensor, and in particular its noise characteristics: they've given the camera an extended ISO range of 50-25,600, which is a three stop jump from the ISO 3200 upper limit of the EOS-1Ds Mark III (and the 5D as well).

The 5D Mark II incorporates Canon's Integrated Cleaning System in front of the sensor, but with a new anti-stick fluorine coating on the frontmost filter surface that's meant to better prevent slightly moist debris from clinging on, or for it to be more readily shaken off during a cleaning cycle.

DIGIC 4 processor Canon's next-generation, 14-bit DIGIC 4 processor saw its digital SLR debut in the 50D, and has quickly become a staple of Canon's lineup, emerging now in both the 5D Mark II and Canon's fall line of PowerShot compact cameras. The new processor is responsible in part for enabling broader file format and image processing options:
  • Two flavours of reduced resolution RAW, called sRAW1 and sRAW2 (in addition to full-resolution RAW)

  • Three increments of High ISO Noise Reduction (which is applied at all ISO settings): Low, Standard, Strong (plus Disable)

  • Three increments of Auto Lighting Optimizer: Low, Standard, Strong (plus Disable).

  • A vignette control (Canon calls this "Peripheral Illumination Correction") that adjusts the amount of edge and corner brightening it applies to in-camera JPEGs based on the Canon lens attached. Canon has profiled the vignette characteristics of 82 lenses past and present (of about 125 Canon EF and EF-S lenses developed to date); the camera can store up to 40 such profiles, and the camera will come already loaded with 26


    An upcoming version of EOS Utility will facilitate the loading and removal of lens vignette profiles in the camera. As new lenses are introduced, lens vignette information will be added to future versions of EOS Utility, which can in turn store this new data in the camera. 

If the camera is set to CR2, lens vignette correction is not applied to the RAW data, but the lens vignette info is noted in the file, enabling Canon's Digital Photo Professional software to optionally apply the correction during conversion.
ISO The camera has an ISO range of 100-6400, in 1/3 step or full step increments, plus ISO 50 (L), 12,800 (H1) and 25,600 (H2). The Auto ISO range is 100-3200. It's not possible to manually select a maximum ISO within the Auto ISO range, or a minimum shutter speed.

Full HD video Canon's first foray into digital SLR video is noticeably more complete than the recently-announced Nikon D90, but falls short of being a complete HD camcorder replacement. It may have just enough of the good stuff, however, to provide a compelling alternative to a separate HD video camera for photographers who require this capability. Here's the skinny:
  • Video capture is at a maximum resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels, which corresponds to 1080p HD resolution. The frame rate is 30fps. Clip length is limited to half an hour (29 minutes and 59 seconds, to be precise) or a 4GB movie file, whichever comes first. In Canon's own testing, the typical maximum clip length possible was about 12 minutes, but this will vary based on scene content.

  • The video format is MPEG4, with a .mov extension (Canon is moving away from Motion JPEG to MPEG4 in its video-capable PowerShots too, including in the just-announced G10, SX1 IS, SX10 IS, SD990 IS and SD880 IS). There are two resolution options, 1920 x 1280 and 640 x 480, but no controls for setting frame rate or compression level.

  • Sound is captured either by a built-in mono mic (located immediately beneath the camera's name badge) or by an external mic connected to a 3.5mm stereo mic jack (Canon is not producing an external mic specifically for the 5D Mark II). Two channels of sound are digitized at a respectable 16 bits/44.1khz in PCM format. Mic levels are adjusted automatically, with no manual override, whether using the built-in or external mic. Wind noise suppression is applied automatically and can't be either adjusted or turned on/off.

  • White balance can be set prior to recording; if Auto WB is selected, scene white balance will adjust as needed to keep up with changing ambient light colour while video is being recorded. Chuck Westfall, Technical Advisor at Canon USA, says that in a brief test of the 5D Mark II's video capture, he observed that the Auto WB function shifted white balance smoothly and gradually in response to different scene lighting (this is a staple feature of dedicated video cameras and our current favourite weekend point-and-shoot, the PowerShot S5 IS).

  • Autofocus is functional both before and during recording, but as it's the contrast detect type it will be slow (essentially, autofocus during recording acts the same as when using contrast detect autofocus in Live View generally: the camera incrementally steps the autofocus until proper focus is achieved). The lack of true tracking autofocus will limit its usefulness during capture. That said, the fact that the camera can be refocused without first stopping the capture or resorting to manual focus is a step up from no autofocus at all.

  • We're not certain about what the range of exposure controls on the 5D Mark II in video mode will be, though a few things are clear: shutter speed will be set automatically (between 1/30 and 1/125), any lens aperture can be selected, brightness can be locked prior to the commencement of video capture, or brightness can be controlled automatically by the camera. What facility there will be for adjusting exposure during recording, if any, we don't know. Nor have we been able to find out whether Canon has implemented the camera's automatic brightness control in a way that avoids the flickering brightness effect that shows up in some Nikon D90 video clips (and which disappears completely with that camera by locking the exposure).

  • Various still image processing settings are honoured in video capture too, including Picture Styles, Highlight Tone Priority, Lens Peripheral Illumination Correction and more.

  • Like certain PowerShot cameras, the 5D Mark II can capture a still photo at any time while a video is being recorded; video recording to the same clip automatically resumes after the still frame is captured.

  • The camera includes a built-in speaker.

  • Video playback direct from the camera can be started and stopped using Canon's RC-1 and RC-5, as the 5D Mark II is compatible with both infrared remote controls.

  • Like Nikon with the D90, Canon is emphasizing the 5D Mark II's ability to achieve shallow focus effects that aren't readily done with smaller-sensor HD cameras today. Says Canon USA's Westfall:

    The EOS 5D Mark II uses its full-frame 24x36mm CMOS sensor for all the images it produces, whether they are still photos or movies. This sensor is approximately 10 to 20 times the size of the image sensors used in most HD camcorders regardless of cost. This sensor size difference means that for any given combination of aperture value, subject distance and angle of view, images from the EOS 5D Mark II are going to have much shallower depth of field than images from a conventional HD device.

    The situation is somewhat similar to the comparison of an 8 x 10 format view camera to a 35mm SLR. This difference in the look and feel of movies created by the EOS 5D Mark II is part of the reason why we believe it will be embraced by creative professionals. Together with the wide selection of interchangeable EF lenses, the relatively large imaging format of the EOS 5D Mark II creates a look that cannot be duplicated by any other movie capture device on the market today.

In our preview of the D90 we were critical of the camera's video mode, because of how little video cameraness Nikon had engineered into its 720p, 24 fps capture function. Canon has gone several steps further in its first try at video in an EOS digital camera, most notably by implementing automatic white balance and rudimentary autofocus during video capture plus providing an external mic jack.

On paper anyway, the 5D Mark II's video mode is about what we think is the minimum necessary in a digital SLR for it to be useful to a working shooter, such as a newspaper photographer, whose job it is to bring back both still and moving pictures from a variety of assignments. Here's hoping that the implementation lives up to the specs.

Live View The 5D Mark II's Live View implementation is closest to that of the 50D. It offers Quick Mode autofocus (phase detection, Live View is interrupted while the mirror drops and focus is performed), Live Mode autofocus (contrast detection, Live View is not interrupted, focus is slower than phase detection) plus a second flavour of Live Mode autofocus that performs automatic face detection. Live View can be engaged using the Direct Print button (and once engaged, video capture can be started and stopped using the Set button within the Quick Command Dial).

Rear LCD Backing up the 5D Mark II is a sharp and clear three inch (diagonal), 920,000 dot, 170 viewing angle rear LCD display, with seven increment brightness control. The screen's size and resolution matches the stunning rear LCD in Nikon's D3, D300 and D700, though the 5D Mark II may or may not be utilizing the same screen component. The 5D Mark II's rear LCD features a triple-layer coating designed to combat glare and smudges while also preventing scratches.

Frame rate and burst depth The 5D Mark II's maximum frame rate is 3.9 fps (CIPA standard) for a Canon-specified unlimited Large Fine JPEG (when a UDMA-capable CompactFlash card is used; 78 with a slower, non-UDMA card), 14 RAW (UDMA card, or 13 with a non-UDMA card) frames (all at ISO 100).

Note that burst depth doesn't drop when High ISO Noise Reduction is enabled, except when the Strong option is selected.

Into Focus: The autofocus sensor component in the EOS 5D Mark II (Photo courtesy Canon)
Autofocus The 5D Mark II's AF system, including its CMOS AF sensor, carries over mostly unaltered from the 5D, and is comprised of nine AF points plus six Assist AF points. The centre AF point acts as a cross-type sensor with lenses whose maximum aperture are f/5.6 or faster. If an f/2.8 or faster lens is used, the centre AF point detects focus with double the precision of slower lenses.

The Assist AF points are arranged in two lines of three just above and just below the centre AF point and are invisible to the photographer (in fact, they can't be manually chosen). With the centre AF point active and AI Servo dialed in, these six additional points clustered within the spot metering circle work in conjunction with the centre AF point to improve subject tracking performance, much like a similar option in earlier 1-series cameras does for certain sports with lots of erratic movement. Two of the Assist AF points are cross-type with f/2.8 or faster lenses.

Somewhat surprisingly, Canon has not adopted the 40D/50D's AF system which, on paper, is superior, given that all nine of its AF points are cross-type. Canon USA's Westfall says the reason for that is the "6 Assist AF points plus center point were deemed to provide a higher level of performance for AI Servo AF than the center point-only arrangement of the [40D and] 50D." Given that we've previously found the overall autofocus performance of the 5D to be decent, while the 40D's tracking capability has been erratic at best, Canon has likely chosen the better of the two AF systems for the 5D Mark II.

The 5D and 5D Mark II share one other notable AF hardware similarity: both utilize a dedicated 32-bit RISC microprocessor to perform AF calculations (in contrast, Canon's Mark III models utilize DIGIC III for this).

This should mean the speed of autofocus will feel about the same as before, with one caveat: because the 5D Mark II's main CPU, DIGIC 4, is much faster than DIGIC II in the 5D, certain functions of the new model may end up enjoying a slight speed boost, even if they don't directly depend on the DIGIC processor to perform their specific function. Autofocus speed could well be one such function that is improved in this way, though whether any speed jump is noticeable or leads to a higher percentage of in-focus pictures is impossible to say without actually using the camera.

The 5D Mark II does include two more obvious changes in its AF system, relative to the 5D: it now has the ability to detect scene colour temperature and light flicker, then incorporate that as part of the camera's autotofocus calculation, plus AF Microadjustment, to compensate for focus calibration error in the camera body or combination of body and attached lens, has been added.

Viewfinder The viewfinder optics in the 5D Mark II are the same as the 5D, and as such the key  specification - magnification - is the same too: .71x. Viewfinder coverage has been expanded slightly, from 96% to 98%, by enlarging the visible area within the viewfinder edge mask.

Open and Shut: The EOS 5D Mark II's shutter is rated for 150,000 cycles (Photo courtesy Canon)
Shutter and mirror The 5D Mark II's shutter, mirror and most everything else you find inside the mirror box (other than the image sensor) carry over from the 5D, with only minor changes. By reconfiguring its release magnets, the shutter's duty cycle rating jumps from 100,000 in the 5D to 150,000 in the 5D Mark II. Shutter lag remains almost identical, at a Canon-specified 73ms (this number is not generated using CIPA testing guidelines), while mirror blackout is a somewhat long 145ms, the same as the 5D.

Given the similarity in basic performance specifications, and a bump of only 1 fps in shooting rate, the 5D Mark II is likely to have the same very slightly sluggish feel of its predecessor when trying to capture key moments, at least when compared to other midrange and pro cameras in the company's lineup.

The 5D Mark II has a top shutter speed of 1/8,000 and a standard top flash sync speed of 1/200 (plus full TTL flash at up to 1/8000 with a compatible EX-series Speedlite set to High Speed Sync). It's not possible to cheat the flash sync much above the standard top flash sync speed with strobes other than Canon Speedlites.

Startup time The camera is ready to shoot when turned on in 0.1 seconds.

CompactFlash Fast CompactFlash card write speeds are expected, owing to the 5D Mark II's support of UDMA up to Mode 6. The camera accepts both Type I and the thicker Type II CompactFlash. Folders can both be created and selected on the card.

Connections Connection options include USB 2.0, HDMI video out (using a Type C connector), analog audio/video out, PC sync and N3 remote. We don't know yet if the HMDI port supports all HD resolutions up to 1080p, as would make sense given the camera's 1080p video recording capability.

Battery The 5D Mark II uses a new-design battery, the 1800mAh Lithium Ion Battery Pack LP-E6, which is charged with the included Battery Charger LC-E6 charger or optional CBC-E6 car charger. In addition to having a higher capacity than the BP-511-style battery than Canon has used for several years in the 5D and numerous other digital SLRs, the LP-E6 includes circuitry to communicate to the camera its serial number, charge life (in 1% increments) and calibration status (called "Recharge Performance" in the camera's menus).

Bundled software The 5D Mark II will ship with new versions of Canon's various digital photography software programs for Mac and Windows, including EOS Utility, Digital Photo Professional, Picture Style Editor and ImageBrowser (Mac) / ZoomBrowser EX (Windows). Playback of video shot with the 5D Mark II will be possible in the latter two applications, as well as trimming clips at the beginning or end. These will be the lone video features offered in the software included with the camera.

Wireless Alongside the 5D Mark II, Canon is introducing Wireless File Transmitter WFT-E4/E4A, a wired Ethernet and 802.11b/g wireless grip-style transmitter that is for use exclusively with the new camera (but is almost the same in design and function as the WFT-E3/E3A for the EOS 40D/50D). The 5D Mark II + WFT-E4/E4A allow for the transfer of folders of photos, in addition to individually selected frames, and can store video as it's being recorded to an attached USB hard drive or other compatible USB storage device (simultaneous recording of video to CompactFlash and to a USB device isn't possible). For simpler wireless configuration, the WFT-E4/E4A supports both the Push Button Connect (PBC) and PIN methods of establishing a link to certain routers that support Wi-Fi Protected Setup.

Price and ship date

The Canon EOS 5D is slated to ship towards the end of November 2008 at an expected street price of US$2699 in the U.S. It will also be available in a bundle with the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS, for US$3499 in the U.S.

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