How does the Canon 5D Mark III stack up against its competition the Nikon D800? Check out our in-depth comparison in the Buying Guide.
There’s no questioning the popularity of Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II. After all, it’s a very close second to Apple’s iPhone 4 for the most-used camera on the image-sharing website Flickr. And now Canon has brought us the EOS 5D Mark III. If our tests are a guide, get ready for an even bigger hit.
The pixel count hasn’t gone up much—a mere 1.2MP bump from the Mark II’s 21.1MP. But look deeper and you’ll see new metering and autofocus systems, an increase to 6 fps bursts (from 3.9), a top sensitivity of ISO 102,400 (up from ISO 25,600), plus several other convenient new features.
After running it through the Popular Photography Test Lab and experiencing it in the field, we can say that the 5D Mark III ($3,500, street, body only) is every bit the imaging machine the Mark II was—and more. It delivers low-noise, high-resolution images with manageable file sizes.
In the Test Lab
A perfect blend of accurate color rendering, high resolving power, and low noise comes together to earn Canon’s EOS 5D Mark III an Excellent rating in overall image quality from ISO 50 all the way through ISO 12,800.
Let’s pause for just a moment to realize what that means: The Mark III delivers color images with a Low noise rating on our stringent scale up to a sensitivity beyond that which was, not too long ago, relegated to very coarse-grained black-and-white film. That’s a seriously admirable achievement.
Despite the Mark III having about one-third fewer pixels than the Nikon D800, it still easily scored an Excellent rating in our resolution test, with 2750 lines per picture height at its lowest (expanded) sensitivity of ISO 50. While that’s a little less than the 2830 lines than the 5D Mark II delivered in this test, given the Mark III’s noise performance (and considering that it has enough resolution for the vast majority of photographers), we don’t see this as a real problem.
Likewise, the Mark III’s average Delta E at ISO 50, our measure for color accuracy, was 6.9 compared to the Mark II’s slightly better score of 6.3. Still, both earned an Excellent rating in this test, and we doubt that anyone will be able to see a difference between the accuracy of their color reproduction.
Looking for clean images in very low light? Welcome to Mark III country. The camera earned an Extremely Low rating from ISO 50 through 400, stepping up to Very Low from ISO 800 through 3200, and Low at ISO 6400 and 12,800. It doesn’t become Unacceptable, and then only barely so, at ISO 51,200. Even at ISO 102,400, the noise score is only 4.4—compared with 4.9 at ISO 25,600 on the Mark II.
But this noise performance is thanks in part to a heavy dose of noise reduction at higher ISOs—which comes at the price of resolution. At ISO 12,800, the Mark III showed 2520 lines of resolution, but it dropped signicantly to 2150 lines at ISO 25,600. By ISO 51,200 it hit 1910 lines, and at ISO 102,400 it resolved just 1500 lines.
To compare, the Nikon D800 reaches Unacceptable noise at ISO 6400, yet still manages to resolve 2900 lines. Prior to the D800, the full-frame DSLR with the most resolution was Sony’s Alpha 900, which resolved 2440 lines at its top of ISO 6400, though it too had Unacceptable noise at that setting.
In our lab-based autofocus-speed test, the Mark III showed very pleasing—if not record-breaking—results. It was able to focus in less than a second all the way down to nighttime darkness (EV –1). That’s impressive. At EV –2, it became considerably less consistent, but averaged 1.15 seconds. So while it’s not the fastest focuser we’ve seen, it represents a massive improvement over the Mark II: In the bright light of EV 12, the latter took 0.51 sec to focus, while the Mark III took 0.37 sec. Worse still, at EV –1 the Mark II lagged nearly a half-second behind, taking 1.47 sec to lock focus and shoot an image.
In the Field
Though it’s about the same size as its predecessor, the 5D Mark III’s body has some advantages. The grip is more comfortable, with a nice divot for your fingertips on the side facing the lens. And the rubber has a different texture for more friction, so the grip feels more secure.
The well-placed, dedicated live view/video switch and button sit just to the right of the finder, making entering and exiting those modes intuitive and speedy. The on/off switch is now on top with the mode dial, and the second command wheel on the back now has a dedicated lock switch. This should make it less confusing to lock and unlock the wheel, and eliminates the possibility of accidentally turning off the camera when locking it, as could happen on the Mark II.
The addition of the Quick menu lets you change settings rapidly through the LCD interface when setting up for a shoot.
If you prefer to use dedicated buttons to change settings, the Mark III has you covered with a slew of them. Many let you change two settings through the different command wheels. There’s a programmable multifunction button just behind the shutter button; the depth-of-field preview button on the front of the camera, like many of the buttons on the 5D Mark III, can be assigned one of numerous functions should you want to customize the camera controls.
Betraying its age, the 5D Mark II had only one memory-card slot (for CompactFlash), while the Mark III has both a CF and an SD card slot. These can be configured to mirror one another, or to fill up in sequence, or to split different kinds of files between them—you can record RAW to one and JPEG to another, for instance.
Video capture yields gorgeous-looking footage. Although Nikon actually gains an edge here (thanks to the uncompressed video output from the D4 and D800), unless you’re shooting a high-level professional-grade project, the video clips you get from this Canon will be all you’ll need. Heck, given how much the Mark II has been used professionally by photojournalists and Hollywood shooters alike, we’d guess that pros will cozy up to the Mark III’s video as well.
Simply offering a burst speed of 6 fps on a full-framer really changes the game for Canon in this class of camera. Combine this with the Mark III’s autofocus tracking functions, and many Mark II shooters will notice a big improvement. While the earlier model was iffy for shooting sports, the Mark III holds its own.
In our field tests, AF tracking performed flawlessly. You can select from six different “Cases” of tracking: You can let the camera know to ignore obstacles that temporarily obstruct your subject, or that the subject will enter the frame from a certain direction, or whether the subject is likely to move erratically or to change speed.
Moreover, you can adjust tracking sensitivity, acceleration, and AF point-switching sensitivity independentally for each Case. Indeed, the Mark III provides so many autofocus options that a whole section of its menu system, with five screens of settings, is dedicated to AF. Unfortunately, the contrast AF used in the live view and video shooting modes is still quite sluggish compared with the camera’s phase-detection system.
(While we were performing our tests, we read reports that some 5D Mark III owners have noticed a problem with light from the illuminated LCD display on the top of the camera interfering with the metering system. We encountered no such light leak in our test unit, despite extensive attempts to replicate it. If you notice any such problem with your camera, you should check with Canon’s customer support.)
The Canon EOS 5D Mark III is a serious improvement over the aging Mark II. With nominal gains in resolution, the new model adds two more stops of usable sensitivity, gives you a better video and live-view shooting experience, and provides major enhancements to the AF system.
Indeed, for the AF alone, it makes sense for most 5D Mark II owners to upgrade. And 7D shooters who have thought about stepping up to full frame now have an option that won’t make them feel as if the burst speed has been chopped.
But if you’re trying to choose between Canon and Nikon at this price level—that is, between the Mark III and D800—you’ll have a harder decision. The two manufacturers seem to have taken completely different approaches to these cameras: Canon held the line on resolution, while Nikon made a huge leap to a 36MP sensor on the D800 from 12.1MP on its predecessor, the D700. Given that files from the D800 are huge and take a long time to process, we find ourselves wondering whether fewer pixels are better. For amateur shooters, the Mark III’s more manageable file sizes mean they won’t have to spend as much on a fancy computer to deal with them. For pros, it means they can spend more time shooting and less time processing. Plus, smaller file sizes mean you won’t have to buy extremely high-capacity memory cards.
Of course, once you discover for yourself how much fun it is shooting with the 5D Mark III, we’re sure you’ll start filling up your cards plenty fast anyway.
Imaging: 22.3MP effective, full-frame CMOS sensor captures images at 5760x3840 pixels with 14 bits/color in RAW mode.
Storage: CompactFlash and SD. Stores JPEG, CR2 RAW, or RAW + JPEG files.
Video: Records up to 1920x1080 pixels at 30 or 24 fps in MPEG-4 H.264 format with choice of ALL-I or IPB compression; built-in monaural microphone; stereo microphone input; approx. 1 hr, 20-min maximum clip size at highest quality.
Burst rate: Full-sized JPEGs (Fine mode), up to 16,270 shots at 6 fps; RAW, up to 18 shots at 6 fps; RAW+JPEG, up to 7 shots at 6 fps; using UDMA mode 7 CF card.
AF system: TTL phase-detection with 61 illuminated focus points (up to 41 cross-type points, varying by lens used); single-shot, continuous, predictive focus tracking; tested sensitivity down to EV –2 (at ISO 100, f/1.4); AF points can be grouped and selected by area.
Live view: Full-time contrast detection, or single-shot phase-detection AF with mirror interrupting view momentarily. Shutter speeds: 1/8000 to 30 sec, plus B (1/3-EV increments); shutter life rated to 150,000 cycles; flash sync to 1/200 second.
Metering: TTL metering using 63-zone sensor; Evaluative, centerweighted, partial (approx. 7.2% of finder at center), and spot (approx. 1.5% of finder at center); range, 1 to 20 EV (at ISO 100).
ISO range: ISO 100–25600 (in 1- or 1/3-EV steps), expandable to ISO 50–102,400.
Viewfinder: Fixed eye-level pentaprism.
Viewfinder Test: Accuracy, 100% (Excellent); Magnification, 0.71X (Very Good).
LCD: Fixed 3.2-in. TFT with 1.04 million-dot resolution, 7-step brightness adjustment.
Output: Hi-Speed USB 2.0, mini-HDMI video, and stereo headphone minijack.
Battery: Rechargeable LP-E6 Li-ion; CIPA rating, 950 shots with optical viewfinder.
Size/weight: 6.0x4.6x3.0 in., 2.1 lb with a card and battery.
Street price: $3,500, body only; $4,300 with 24–105mm f/4L IS USM AF EF lens.