Canon 5D Mark III Review
The Canon EOS 5D Mark III steps up as the long-awaited successor to the Canon 5D Mark II.
The Canon EOS 5D Mark III is the long-awaited successor to the Canon 5D Mark II, the DSLR that kickstarted the full-frame video revolution. More than three years later, the market is crowded with cameras that can match or exceed what the 5D Mark II can do—several coming from Canon's own stable. So the $3,499 (body-only) 5D Mark III is an important release for Canon, to put it mildly. It wouldn't be hyperbolic to suggest that this is the most anticipated DSLR of 2012.
To succeed, it needs to offer more sophisticated video integration, faster shooting, and improved autofocus. We sent it to the lab to see if it could measure up to the hype.
Design & Usability
Dual card slots, great handling, and plenty of control options
Following the Mark II's 2009 release, Canon introduced several design enhancements with their 7D and 1D X models. And wouldn't you know it—the new Mark III adopted many those enhancements as well. This generous inheritance includes a locking mode dial, a start/stop video recording button, a live view/movie lever, and a "Q" quick control mode, to name just a few. Together, these features improve usability not only for professionals, but also for novices and (particularly) videographers.
As you'd expect from a high-end camera, no expense has been spared for handling or durability. The 5D Mark III features a large, plush grip and a chassis of durable magnesium alloy. The camera body isn't quite as durable as the flagship 1D X, but it's smaller and also lighter than you might expect—or at least it is before mount that high-end L-series glass.
The 5D Mark III has also been given a host of usability upgrades for better integration into professional photography and videography workflows. The camera now features dual card slots (one CF, one SD), an image metatag rating button, integrated SMPTE timecoding for multi-camera shoots, and an autofocus system that is worlds ahead of the one on the older Mark II. All this adds up to a camera that will do everything that the Mark II did for professionals, but in a faster, more efficient manner.
Improved speed and plenty of video upgrades
The older Mark II was a revolutionary camera, in that it brought new respectability to DSLRs as videography tools, but the camera itself wasn't really all that groundbreaking—it was an evolutionary upgrade that simply grafted video features onto the 5D. Similarly, those looking for wholesale changes in the new Mark III are going to be disappointed, because it is more a refinement of the Mark II than a radically different product.
The Mark III's biggest upgrades are its respectable 5.2 fps shot-to-shot speed (up from 3.9 fps) and its improved autofocus system. For still photography, these were the two biggest shortcomings of the 5D Mark II. The Mark III's 61-point autofocus system isn't quite as sophisticated as the one on the Canon 1D X, but it's a massive leap forward from the Mark II's 9-point system. Where the Mark II had just a single cross-type sensitive point, the Mark III now has 41, offering far better accuracy and 3D tracking capability than its predecessor.
There are also plenty of improvements for videographers. The most important of these is the addition of ALL-I and IPB compression options. ALL-I compresses each frame individually, which produces higher-quality, larger video files that are easier to edit. IPB compression uses keyframes to compress multiple frames of a video, resulting in smaller files that are more difficult to trim in post. Additionally, the Mark III uses SMPTE timecoding for syncing video in multi-camera shoots, and 3.5mm headphone and mic jacks are also built in.
Solid all-around performance and vastly improved autofocus
The Mark III did very well in our performance tests. We noticed a sharp jump up in resolution (shooting with Canon's 24-105mm f/4L for the best possible head-to-head comparison with the Nikon D800), and the new model also offers improved dynamic range performance over its predecessor. However, in both sharpness and dynamic range it lags slightly behind the D800.
As expected, the 5D Mark III does nothing to sully Canon's reputation for fine color reproduction. It also produced exceptionally clean shots at low ISO speeds, with excellent color gradation. The camera didn't put up the best resolution numbers we've ever seen, but that's largely due to a lack of edge enhancement in the JPEG engine. If you compare the 5D Mark III's RAW shots against most of its competition, the difference is minimal at best.
In our video testing we were quite impressed with the 5D Mark III's performance. Canon has definitely reduced the ugly moire that plagued the Mark II's output, and the newer compression options produce sharper images that stand better to aggressive editing. The Mark III also did well in our low-light sensitivity tests, though it lags a bit behind the Canon 1D X, which can practically see in the dark.
The 5D Mark III is an improvement on the Mark II in almost every way.
While not a radical overhaul or a dramatic leap in technology, the Mark III shores up most of the gaps in the Mark II's performance profile, offering the benefit of faster shot-to-shot times, dramatically improved autofocus, and superb metering. Video quality and controls are also given substantial upgrades sure to please videographers of all stripes.
The Mark III outperforms its predecessor in virtually every category. Sure, it still doesn't produce video as sharp as the top camcorders, but it thoroughly outclasses the Mark II. Its video will look great even after lots of post-production sharpening and grading, and moire is far better controlled. The new autofocus system is a huge relief for 5D Mark II owners, who regularly complained about the inaccuracy and limited scope of that camera's AF system.
Critical reception of the Mark III has been tepid so far, with many reviews expressing disappointment that it doesn't dramatically alter the DSLR landscape the way the Mark II did. That's an unfortunate side-effect of the Mark II's success, but we'd counter that the Mark II didn't do anything dramatically different than the competition; it just did it better.
The Mark III may not be the radical departure from tradition that Canon fans were hoping for, but make no mistake: the Mark III is a better DSLR than the Mark II in almost every way. It handles better, shoots faster, offers more control, and is better suited to all kinds of still and video applications. Is that worth the extra money? Whether you're a hobbyist in search of a great DSLR or a professional whose livelihood depends upon a camera, we'd say yes—it's a small price to pay.
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