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Canon’s New EOS 5D DSLR ($3,300 street, body only) is a study in the yin and yang of camera design. On the one hand, its 12.8MP full-frame CMOS sensor eliminates the 35mm lens factor found on all lower-priced DSLRs and gives it a potential image-quality edge. On the other hand, it costs more than twice as much as the 8.2MP EOS 20D ($1,300 street) from which it was cloned, and it’s missing a few of the 20D’s features. So you might ask, if the EOS 5D takes a picture in the woods and nobody hears it, does it make a sound purchase? Put simply, yes. Which is why we made it our 2005 Camera of the Year.

Last month, we gave you an overview of the EOS 5D’s features (see “Answered Prayers,” November 2005). Here’s a closer look at the 5D’s top features, image quality and performance results from tests we ran on a production model. We’ll let you decide if the camera deserves Zen Master status.

Those who already shoot with an EOS 20D will immediately understand the logic behind the EOS 5D’s copycat construction and controls. Canon started with a great camera body and made a few modifications (and omissions) to fit in the extra features of the 5D. Like the 20D, its stainless steel and molded magnesium-alloy body make it tough enough to handle most of the abuse it’s likely to run into when used by pro news, sports, or wedding photographers. At 1 lb, 13 oz (body only) it weighs four ounces more than the EOS 20D, due primarily to the larger mirror and prism assembly for the larger sensor. Canon also expanded the left side of the camera to make room for additional processing circuits, RAM for the capture buffer, and a beefed-up main mode dial. Finally, the solid metal top plate covering the prism (where once sat a plastic pop-up flash) increased the weight slightly.

Will pros miss the built-in flash? Not likely, as the advantages of shoe-mount units far outweigh those of a pop-up system. Like the 20D, the 5D supports multiple flash arrangements, and it also supports E-TTL II capabilities found on the latest flash units such as the Canon Speedlite 430EX ($300 street). High-speed flash sync (FP flash) is also possible with some units up to the camera’s maximum 1/8000-sec shutter speed, but standard flash sync has dropped to 1/200 sec from the 1/250 sec of the EOS 20D.

The next, most obvious physical difference between the two cameras is the 5D’s gorgeous 2.5-inch TFT LCD monitor (compared to the 1.8-inch LCD found on the EOS 20D). With approximately 230,000-pixel resolution, its played-back images look sharper, and exposure data and menu controls can be read at arm’s length. The viewing angle is also extraordinary (nearly 170 degrees off-axis), and this LCD is extremely accurate, showing nearly 100% of the image as shot. As with the 20D, you can view exposure information, highlight and shadow warnings, and luminance histograms, but the 5D also includes RGB histograms.

The optical viewfinder also shows excellent image accuracy–rating 95% in our tests. Image magnification, on the other hand, isn’t as good as the 0.94X of the EOS 20D. But it’s on par with the EOS-1Ds Mark II ($7,395 street) at 0.76X, a Good rating. Higher magnification viewfinders are easier to design when working with a smaller sensor, which explains why few full-frame SLRs have ever achieved an Excellent magnification rating.

While most control buttons and dials are found in the same places as on the 20D, the EOS 5D has a larger main mode dial, which no longer includes the programmed presets and A-Dep (aperture-priority depth of field) setting found on the 20D. Instead, the 5D’s mode dial is less cluttered, and it includes a Camera User position (access to your Picture Style setting) and a Bulb setting for long exposures. The 5D also includes six Picture Style settings-Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral, Faithful, and Monochrome-plus three custom styles. All let you customize their contrast, color tone, sharpness, and saturation settings, unlike the presets on the 20D.

Other control changes include a new easy-print button above the large LCD on the back, and the elimination of the pop-up flash button on the front. The easy-print button glows with a blue light when the camera is connected to a printer and gives you quick access to previous printer settings stored in the camera.

Inner Strength
The EOS 5D offers even more from within. The full-frame, CMOS sensor features 12.8MP (effective) resolution, which gives it a sharpness edge over the EOS 20D. Thus, 14.5×22-inch photo-quality prints can be made from the 5D (at 200 ppi) compared to 12×17.5-inch prints from the 20D.

On the color accuracy front, the EOS 20D does slightly better, with an Excellent rating (Delta E 6.63) compared with the EOS 5D’s Extremely High rating (its Delta E of 8.2 just missed the 8.0 cutoff). While both the 20D and 5D produce Extremely Low noise at ISO 100, the EOS 5D holds down noise better at ISO 400 and above, a testament to the 5D’s larger pixels. Way up at ISO 1600, both cameras delivered similar Moderately Low ratings-without resorting to blurring filters. Bottom line? The 5D delivers Excellent image quality from ISO 100 to 800, with better sharpness than the EOS 20D. However, both the Nikon D2X and the new D50 have lower noise levels at ISO 1600.

Canon claims the AF system on the EOS 5D is an improvement over the 20D’s, especially in motion tracking (AI Servo) modes where nine selectable and six invisible AF zones come into play (making a total of 15). With f/2.8 or brighter lenses, more of the AF zones are cross-type. Our tests show that the 5D is very fast in bright light and even capable of focusing in very low-light levels at EV -0.5. But while the AF tracking system on the 5D is fast enough for most action, the camera drops its JPEG burst rate to 3.5 fps, compared with the 4.5 fps of the 20D. The good news? If you load it with a fast CF card, such as the SanDisk Extreme III, the 5D can capture up to 60 high-quality JPEGs in a continuous burst.

The EOS 5D appears to follow a path between two extremes. On the yin side, its full-frame sensor gives photographers the advantages of the expensive EOS 1Ds Mark II and the best image quality you can find in a sub-$3,500 DSLR. On the yang side, its construction, size, and array of features are closer to those offered by the APS-sensored EOS 20D. Now if it only cost less, more photographers would reach nirvana.

Certified test results: Canon EOS 5D
Resolution: Excellent (2310Hx2220Vx2080Diag lines). Color accuracy: Extremely High (Avg. Delta E: 8.20). Highlight/shadow detail: Very High. Contrast: Normal, and adjustable in 7 steps via menus. Noise: Extremely Low at ISO 100, Very Low at ISO 200 to ISO 400, Low at ISO 800, Moderately Low at ISO 1600. Image quality: Excellent from ISO 100 to 800. Extremely High at ISO 800 to 1600. AF speed: Very Fast in bright light (EV 12 to 7) from 0.52 to 0.62 sec, but slightly slower than the EOS 20D (0.49 to 0.55 sec). In low light (EV 6 to 3) it was still fast at 0.64 sec to 0.77 sec, and in very low light (EV 2 to 1) it slowed down just a bit to 0.95 sec. At its impressive limit (EV -0.5, just better than the 20D) it took 1.5 sec to focus. Viewfinder: 0.76X magnification gets a good rating, similar to the EOS-1Ds Mark II. It shows 95% of the picture area, an excellent result. The removable, etched focusing screen (below, type Ee-A) shows 9 selectable AF zones with center-cross type. Red boxes show actual sensitivity. Green boxes show invisible AF zones active in AI Servo mode. CIPA battery life: Approx. 800 shots with rechargeable BP-511A Li-ion battery.
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