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.
The Canon 5D Mark III is not a dramatic reimagining of the DSLR, but you'd be forgiven for imagining that to be the case, given the hype in advance of its launch. The truth is that the Mark III is a subtle refinement of the Mark II—but one with several targeted improvements. It retains most of what made the Mark II a great camera while shoring up the areas where it really struggled. In in nearly all of our tests, the Mark III is a better camera than its predecessor—and certainly one of the best DSLRs on the market today.
The Mark III isn't the speediest device around, but it isn't the slowest, either.
With a glut of full frame cameras from every major manufacturer hitting the scene in 2012, it's surprising to remember how rare they were just a few years ago. Full frame sensors are expensive to manufacture and, generally speaking, cameras that use them have been on the slower side. The Mark III isn't a terribly fast camera, maxing out at around 5.2 fps, but that's a huge improvement over the 3.9 fps we saw from the 5D Mark II. It's also a faster speed than you get with the brand-new $2,100, full-frame Canon 6D (4.5 fps), but a hair slower than Nikon's $2,100 D600 (5.5 fps).
So while we can't give the Mark III top marks for its speed, anyone married to the Canon system and looking to upgrade from the Mark II will get a noticeable boost in response time. And when you consider the autofocus improvements, that upgrade becomes even more enticing.
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.
It's like trading a beige sedan in for a sports car.
Autofocus speed and accuracy are worlds better with the Mark III than they were with the Mark II. Going from a 9-point, 1 cross-type array to a densely-packed 61-point array with 41 cross-type sensors (the same system used in Canon's flagship 1D X) is like going from a boring beige sedan to a cutting-edge sports car. The only difference between the 1D X and the Mark III's AF system is the integration of the metering system—the Mark III utilizes a 63-zone system that isn't nearly as advanced as the one used by the 1D X. As you'd expect, the Mark III handily breezed through our autofocus test, easily locking onto subjects in light levels as low as 10 lux.
Along with the new hardware functionality, the 5D Mark III includes an incredible array of controls that will let the user fine-tune their autofocus performance. Included among these new controls are six case-based AF modes, letting you tweak tracking sensitivity, acceleration/deceleration tracking speed, and AF point auto switching. Each case can be saved in memory, so users can tweak autofocus to suit multiple shooting situations. 5D Mark II owners could only dream of such flexibility.
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.
Exceptionally clean high-ISO files highlight the 5D Mark III's strong performance.
We found that the Canon 5D Mark III's full-frame CMOS sensor produced some of the best results we've seen at base ISO (100). At that sensitivity, the camera returned just 0.39% average chroma noise and 0.41% luminance noise, a fluctuation imperceptible at any reasonable viewing distance.
As you move up the ISO scale, the Mark III's armor begins to show some cracks. With noise reduction turned off, noise only crosses the 2% threshold at ISO 12,800 and 3.3% at ISO 25,600, its maximum native ISO. The two high ISO settings, equivalent to 51,200 and 102,400, push it even further, returning noise results in excess of 3.5% with no noise reduction applied. Anything above 6,400 is really pushing the performance of the camera, unless you expect to do heavy editing and can live with significant detail loss due to noise reduction.
Accurate colors across the gamut are a strong point for the Mark III.
The Canon 5D Mark III's full-frame sensor, excellent white balance, reliable metering, and reasonable JPEG processing allowed it to produce absolutely wonderful color accuracy under friendly lighting conditions. With a 63-zone dual-layer metering system inherited from the Canon 7D, the Mark III captured accurate color values throughout the color range, with particularly strong results among darker colors.
The Mark III features a number of picture styles, each of which provides slightly different sharpness, saturation, and color tone values. The most accurate mode, "faithful," was able to keep color error to just 2.15, with a saturation level that was just a hair over perfect. This put the Mark III among the best cameras we have tested in this regard, though slightly behind the 1D X. That accuracy, combined with the camera's strong low light performance, enables shooting in limited, natural light settings. Moreover, images are captured in such a way that they accurately reflect the real-life scene.
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.
The 5D Mark III produces excellent footage with a beautiful full-frame aesthetic.
The Mark III had no problems rendering motion effectively in either of its compression modes (IPB or ALL-I), with minimal noise and little artifacting either way. Shooting a standard sharpness chart, we found that the Mark III was able to render, at best, around 700 line pairs per picture height (LPPH) of sharpness horizontally, and 750 vertically with its IPB compression, with ALL-I actually looking slightly softer than that. These numbers aren't much better than what we got from the Mark II, but they come with significantly reduced moire.
One aspect that is not improved is the rolling shutter effect, preventing the effective use of quick pans or capture of truly fast moving subjects. That's less of a problem with software, and really more to do with using a rolling shutter on a CMOS sensor. Until global shutter technology (as used on most CCD sensors typically found in camcorders and high-end video cameras) can be used on these sensors, we don't anticipate much improvement in this area for DSLRs.
Two more bright spots amid stellar overall performance
The 5D Mark III otherwise performed quite ably in our performance testing. Its dynamic range is better than what we've seen from most of the APS-C crop sensors that we've tested, but that advantage is lost at the highest ISO speeds. Finally, we should reserve special mention for the incredibly accurate white balance system, which is miles better than the finicky system we saw on the Nikon D800, the Mark III's chief competition.
Meet the tester
TJ is the Executive Editor of Reviewed.com. He is a Massachusetts native and has covered electronics, cameras, TVs, smartphones, parenting, and more for Reviewed. He is from the self-styled "Cranberry Capitol of the World," which is, in fact, a real thing.
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