Canon EOS 5D Mark III

Canon's EOS 5D Mark III has a lot to live up to. For a start, the original Canon EOS 5D was the first DSLR to really bring full-frame digital photography within the reach of enthusiast photographers. Then came its replacement, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, which kick-started the current trend for shooting video on a DSLR.

So naturally, as the 5D Mark II clocked up its third birthday in September 2011, the rumour mill slipped into overdrive with lots of speculation about the likely specification of the 5D Mark III.

While it might not have the headline-grabbing 36MP pixel count of the Nikon D810, Canon's latest full-frame camera has lots to offer enthusiast photographers.

Features

  • Full-frame CMOS sensor, 22.3MP
  • 3.2-inch screen, 1,040,000 dots
  • 1080p video capture

With 22.3 million effective pixels, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III's sensor only has 1.2MP more than the 21.1MP Canon EOS 5D Mark II that it replaces, but it has 4.2MP more than the 18.1MP Canon EOS-1D X at the top of Canon's DSLR line-up.

Whereas the Canon EOS-1D X has two DIGIC 5+ processors, the 5D Mark III has one, which in combination with its eight-channel readout means that it has a top continuous shooting speed of 6fps.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III review

This is half the rate of Canon's top-end camera, and it may disappoint those hoping for something in the region of 8fps or more. It's a big jump from the 3.9fps of the Canon 5D Mark II, though, and the burst depth is an impressive 18 raw images or 16,270 JPEGs (when a UDMA 7 card is used).

Sensitivity may be set in the range of ISO100-25,600 in 1/3-stop or whole stop increments, and it can be expanded to include L: ISO 50, H1: ISO 51200, H2 ISO102,400.

Predictably, Canon has upgraded the metering system to its iFCL metering. Existing Canon EOS 5D Mark II users may find it takes a little getting used to as it reacts in a similar way to centre-weighted metering and puts greater emphasis on the subject under the active AF point.

In some situations this is a blessing, but with exceptionally dark or light main subjects the results may not be the same as the Canon EOS 5D Mark II would produce in its evaluative metering mode.

Its video capability was one of the big successes of the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, and Canon hasn't changed much of its specification for the Mark III version, but there are some significant improvements.

Firstly there's the introduction of a live view/movie switch on the rear, like on the Canon EOS 7D, to speed up movie activation.

There's also a headphone socket for monitoring the stereo audio, which can be adjusted in the same way as that on the Canon EOS-1D X.

Until now Canon hasn't had a DSLR with in-camera HDR recording, but the Canon EOS 5D Mark III is capable of recording and merging three shots to produce a high dynamic range image.

This is extremely useful, since it records all three shots as well as the processed HDR image, and if you shoot raw and JPEG images simultaneously, you'll find you have a total of seven images, including three raw files that you can process yourself if you wish.

Another difference between the Mark II and III versions of the Canon EOS 5D is that the newer camera has two card ports, one for compact flash and the other for SD format cards. There's no XQD card port.

  • Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Mark IV: 21 key differences

Build and handling

  • Magnesium alloy and polycarbonate construction
  • Dust and weather-sealed
  • 950g

According to Canon, the EOS 5D Mark III has better weatherproofing than the Mk II version. This is something that's difficult to test in the short term, but many enthusiasts and pros will be reassured by that knowledge.

The camera is large, but not in the same league as the Canon EOS-1D X, since it lacks the additional portrait orientation grip and controls.

The finger grip is covered in a textured rubber-like coating that helps it feel secure in your grasp, and the contours of the front and rear make it comfortable to hold.

Overall there is a feeling of quality, and the magnesium alloy body doesn’t squeak or creak when squeezed tightly.

The body of the Canon EOS 5D Mark III is largely unchanged from the Mark II’s, but there are a few key differences. The pentaprism lump on the top, for example, is a little larger and more rounded to accommodate the AF module, which is 2.5x larger than the one in the Canon EOS 5D Mk II.

There's also the live view/video switch on the back of the camera, which is within easy reach of the right thumb. In addition, Canon has added a couple of new buttons. The first of these is to access three creative options: Picture Styles, Multiple Exposure (up to nine images can be combined into one) and the HDR modes.

Another new button is marked Rate, and pressing it in playback mode enables you to rate the image – one press for one star, two for two, and so on. These ratings are logged in the EXIF data and are visible in Adobe Bridge and Photoshop Elements.

We found the Rate feature extremely useful when reviewing images taken during this test, since it makes sitting on the bus or train home from a shoot productive. You may not use it to make your final image selection, but it's useful for working out which are the best images to consider.

Pleasingly, Canon has given the EOS 5D Mark III the same 3.2-inch 1,040,000-dot Clear View II TFT LCD screen as the Canon EOS-1DX.

The gap between the LCD display and its glass cover has been filled with an optical gel, and this helps to keep reflections at bay. We found that the screen provides a sharp, clear view even when shooting outside in bright sunlight.

Given the Canon EOS 5D's reputation as video camera, it's a shame that Canon wasn't bold enough to give the Mark III version an articulating screen. 

Autofocus

  • 61-point AF, 41 cross-type AF points
  • 21 cross-type AF points at f/4
  • Dual Pixel CMOS AF for Live View

The Canon EOS 5D Mark III has the same 61-point wide-area autofocus system as the flagship Canon EOS-1D X. This is a big improvement on the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, which has nine user selectable AF points and six assist points, giving a total of 15.

Of these 61 points, 41 are cross-type and five are dual cross-type points, which is good news for accuracy. The customisable AF presets introduced in the Canon EOS-1D X are also available, which Canon claims helps when shooting more challenging subjects.

However, this means that existing Canon EOS 5D Mark II users have a steep learning curve when shooting sport and action scenes.There are six AF Area Selection modes, including Spot AF (Manual Selection), Single-point AF (Manual Selection), AF Point Expansion (Manual Selection), AF Point Expansion (Manual Selection, Surrounding 8 Points), Zone AF (Manual selection of Zone) and 61-Point Automatic Selection AF.

On top of this, the the AI Servo (continuous AF) mode characteristics such as tracking sensitivity, acceleration/deceleration tracking and AF point switching can be adjusted.Helpfully, there are a number of sport-orientated 'Case Studies' or setup arrangements that enable users to select the correct options for the subject. We found that the AF system is fast and accurate. It did a good job of keeping up with skateboarders and BMX riders in subdued light in this test.

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Performance

  • 6fps burst shooting
  • Quiet shooting mode (3fps)
  • Multiple Picture Styles

A burst shooting rate of 6fps is solid if unspectacular, while wildlife photographers may find the Canon EOS 5D Mark III's Quiet Mode useful, because unlike other quiet modes, it doesn't rely on the mirror being held up after the shot has been taken. 

Instead the mirror moves more slowly, and a new mechanism dampens the movement to reduce the noise.The end result isn't silent, but it's much quieter than in normal shooting mode, and it enables a maximum continuous shooting rate of 3fps.

Canon produces one of the best white balance systems around, and the one in the Canon EOS 5D Mark III doesn't disappoint. When set to the automatic setting, images look natural and generally retain the atmosphere of the shooting conditions.

The Standard picture style is a great option for most situations, but others such as Neutral, Faithful, Monochrome, Portrait and Landscape are on hand, along with three custom options, if you want a different look.

Image quality

  • ISO100-256,000 expandable to 50-102,400 (H2)
  • Built-in low-pass filter
  • +/-5 EV exposure compensation in 1/3 or 1/2 stop increments

The Nikon D810 is viewed by many as the natural competitor for the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. Given its class-leading pixel count, it's not really a surprise that the Nikon D810 is capable of resolving more detail than the 5D Mark III.

What is a little surprising, however, is that the Nikon camera also produces raw and JPEG images that have a higher dynamic range when the lower sensitivity images are used.

We might have expected this to be the other way around, given that the pixels on the Canon EOS 5D Mark III's sensor have more space.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III review

It is only when the sensitivity of raw files is pushed to ISO800, or the JPEG sensitivity is ISO3200 or higher, that the Canon EOS 5D Mark III's dynamic range is higher than the Nikon D810's.

Nevertheless, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III is extremely capable, and it resolves an impressively high level of detail in both raw and JPEG files, which only really starts to dip when the sensitivity is pushed to ISO25,600.

Our tests also show that from around ISO100 and above, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III has a slightly higher signal to noise ratio than the Nikon D810, so images have less noise.

However, as is usually the case, noise becomes quite noticeable when the upper sensitivity expansion settings (ISO51,200 and ISO102,400) are used, so these are best reserved for emergencies.

We also found that at the top settings, the camera can struggle to render tonal gradations in some red subjects, and small patches of uniform tone appear, giving parts of the image a posterised appearance.

Despite these issues, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III is capable of producing some very impressive results in low light.

When shooting some BMX riders in dim light, for example, the sensitivity was pushed to ISO12,800 and the JPEG results look very good at A3 size.

Even at 100 per cent on the computer screen, images look respectable, with only a slight mottling of luminance noise and some softening of some fine details. Raw files, of course, can be processed to reveal a bit more detail provided you don't mind a bit of texture.

Video

  • 30, 25 or 24fps
  • Max duration 29min 59sec, Max single file size 4GB
  • Uncompressed 8bit 4.2.2 via HDMI

The Canon EOS 5D Mark II hit the market in late 2008, and although it wasn't the first DSLR to offer HD video, its ability to record at 1080p footage overshadowed the Nikon D90's 720p, making it the popular choice for many movie makers.

Its launch also marked the beginning of a new era, since for the first time a DSLR was capable of producing video footage that, in the right hands, could rival the visual style and quality of a professional-level movie camera.

Yet despite the Mark II's popularity, early issues with frame rates, audio levels and manual control left many working with its video features feeling frustrated.

Users had to wait a year before the 21.1 million pixel full-frame sensor's full video potential could be realised, when official and unofficial firmware updates unlocked additional features such as zebra stripes, depth of field estimates and an assortment of other handy cinematic tools.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III review

Its replacement, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, was finally announced in March 2012, offering a new sensor, image enhancements and a host of video improvements.

The headline features don't seem on paper to be that far removed from what has come before, with frame rates remaining at 24, 25 and 30fps at 1080p.

Unfortunately there are no 50 or 60fps options on the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, even though these faster rates have been seen on rival models from both Sony and Panasonic.

However, features such as intra-frame (All-i) formats for higher quality footage, along with SMTPE time code, have migrated down from the Canon EOS 1DX, and recording times have been extended from the relatively short 12 minutes to 29 minutes 59 seconds.

For Canon EOS 5D Mark II users, one of the biggest issues had been the complete lack of audio monitoring through headphones. This is now added to the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, along with visual audio level indicators – these levels appeared on the Mark II after an early firmware update.

One big advantage of the Mark III over the Mark II is the addition of silent controls, again migrated from the 1D X. After activation these enable you to use the rear dial to adjust aperture, ISO and audio values through a touch-sensitive response, but this feature only becomes active while shooting.

A light touch is of course needed, but when you compare this with the noise of moving the dials, as with the Mark II, the benefits of eliminating dial clicks or inevitable shake while filming are instantly apparent.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III review

So the Canon EOS 5D Mark III has made steps rather than leaps forward with video, and because of this, unofficial firmware versions have already appeared, again offering features that many feel should have been incorporated into the official release firmware. Perhaps zebras and peaking might at some point feature in Canon's plans

As ever, specs and features are only part of the picture, and the video enhancements can only be confirmed as improvements after handling the camera.

As with the Mark II or any other DSLR featuring video, the video features, frame rates and audio setup are accessed through the menus, and as expected there's really little difference in how you select the quality, resolution and other video features with the Mark III.

Sure enough there are a few more options for the Mark III, but nothing groundbreaking. The addition of the intra-frame format is a benefit, offering higher quality files, although this is somewhat overshadowed by the knowledge that both the Nikon D800 and Nikon D600 offer clean HDMI output to external recorders. (Update now added in the latest firmware).

Comparing footage shot on both the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Canon EOS 5D Mark III reveals there is a noticeable difference in the noise and dynamic range, especially as you journey through the sensitivity values.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III review

At the lower end, say ISO160, footage looks very similar from the two models. However, moving up to ISO6400, the Mark III footage is noticeably cleaner, showing less chromatic noise in the shadows and a greater level of detail.

As always the difference in quality is relative, and this difference is only highlighted when footage from the two models is viewed side-by-side.

The Mark II also suffered from issues such as rolling shutter and moiré. Although the moiré was less of an issue on the Mark II when compared with Canon's APS-C cameras, rolling shutter inevitably causes problems with almost any type of panning.

Here Canon seems to have resolved the issue, and in several panning tests the effect is minimal and far less noticeable. One major improvement is the issue of dropping frames while panning, and while this happens constantly with the 5D Mark II's footage, on test the Mark III produced clean frames without drops, even when panning quickly.

For many, one of the biggest downsides of the Canon EOS 5D Mark II was the audio monitoring. And while it was capable of recording audio using an external mic, the inability to actually hear in real time what was being recorded was a major inconvenience.

The Canon EOS 5D Mark III adds a headphone socket that enables this real-time monitoring of audio and really does make a huge difference, especially when presenting live.

However, as with all video-enabled DSLRs, while the audio is good, the preamps are still not fantastic, so for a true clean audio experience an external recorder is still a good idea. On this front the addition of time coding should make audio syncing post-capture that much easier.

The recording procedure has also changed for the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, with a dedicated live view movie to still switch to the right of the viewfinder replacing the old single live view option of the 5D Mark II.

This means that you don't have to swap between still and movie live view modes in the settings, which is a great time saving addition.

The way you start and stop video recording has also changed, with the new switch holding the start/stop record button, as opposed to the Mark II's Set to Start option.

The large control dial on the back is now touch-active to adjust settings while shooting, which takes a little time to get used to, but in practice works well.

While it's a nice touch, you generally set the exposure before shooting, and although you avoid the clunk of a rotating dial and to some extent movement from having to physically move the dials, the electronic aperture control still generates a fair amount of noise.

Sample images

Canon EOS 5D Mark III review

The iFCL metering performed well here, the highlights in the petal have not burned out.

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III review

Although the LCD screen has a wide viewing angle and reflections aren’t a major issue, when you are shooting from very low angles it is impossible to see the subject without lying flat on the ground.

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III review

The 5D Mark III has a wide dynamic range, but it can’t capture detail in both the dark shadow and the sky here – one for HDR mode.

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HDR Mode sequence images

Canon EOS 5D Mark III review

Normal exposure – the left side of the sky has burned out

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III review

The over-exposed shot taken as part of the HDR sequence.

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III review

The under-exposed shot taken as part of the HDR sequence.

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III review

The in-camera HDR result, there are no true blacks or whites in this image, but the end result is natural looking.

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High ISO, 6fps sequence

Canon EOS 5D Mark III review

Aesthetically, this and the other images in the sequence would benefit from cropping, but we have included the full scene so you can examine the whole image. The camera managed to keep the cyclist in focus from the approach, to take off and throughout the jump and landing.

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III review

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III review

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Canon 5D Mark III

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This image has been shot at ISO 12,800 and really shows the low light capabilities of the 5D Mark III. Best seen at high res, an impressive amount of detail has been rendered.

Canon 5D Mark III sample image

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Colours directly from the 5D Mark III are represented well, as shown in this image shot in Auto White Balance.

Canon 5D Mark III sample image

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This is another image that shows the impressive color rendition of the 5D Mark III, shot at Auto ISO, the camera has coped well in a dark (indoor) situation.

Canon 5D Mark III sample image

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This image shows the incredibly shallow depth of field effects that can be achieved when using a full-frame camera (shot at f/2.8)

Canon 5D Mark III sample image

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Shot at ISO 8000, if you look closely at the high res image you can see how much detail has been resolved in the fabric. An impressive amount that would be more than usable for most photographers.

Canon 5D Mark III sample image

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Canon 5D Mark III sample image

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The 5D Mark III has 61 autofocus points, and we’ve found that it is able to lock onto the subject quickly and easily, even in low light and difficult scenarios.

Canon 5D Mark III sample image

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Even at incredibly high ISOs such as ISO 20,000 as seen in this picture, the images remain usable – again it’s best to have a look at the high res image to truly get a feel for how well the noise has been controlled.

Canon 5D Mark III sample image

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For comparison, this image has been shot at the camera’s highest possible ISO setting (Hi2), which is ISO 102,400.

Canon 5D Mark III sample image

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This image was shot using the Canon 100mm Macro ‘L’ lens. Selecting one of the 61 autofocus points allows you to hone in on fine detail.

Canon 5D Mark III sample image

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Autofocus settings can be changed to use zone AF, which clusters together autofocus points into zones selectable via the joystick on the back of the camera.

Verdict

While the key specification changes since the 5D Mark II largely just bring the Canon EOS 5D Mark III into line with Canon's existing DSLRs, we're impressed with the results from the new camera.

Raw and JPEG images have plenty of detail, noise is well controlled at the higher native sensitivity settings and colour and exposure are generally very good.

Canon has also clearly put in a lot of thought about how enthusiasts use a camera, and the new HDR system is the best on the market.

Images are generally well exposed, thanks to the iFCL metering, and the white balance and Picture Styles deliver the colour and tones we expect from a top-end Canon camera.

Provided you keep the camera reasonably still, the Canon EOS 5D Mk III's HDR mode does a great job of aligning and merging images, plus you have the fallback of all the raw and JPEG files if you want.

Existing Canon EOS 5D Mark II users will find the AF system more complex than they're used to. While this is an improvement, the various AF-point selection mode options and characteristic adjustments can be a little confusing.

It suffers a little from the fact that the majority of the systems have been seen elsewhere in the Canon DSLR lineup, and therefore there is nothing really groundbreaking.

Image quality throughout the native sensitivity range is excellent, noise is well controlled and there's plenty of detail. The AF system has been given a serious upgrade on what the Canon EOS 5D Mark II version has, and it puts in an excellent performance.

Competition

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

The update to the 5D Mark III offers a number of improvements, including more pixels and 4K video recording, but it comes at a cost – the Mark IV costs quite a bit more, so ask yourself if you need those additional features.

Nikon D810

The EOS 5D Mark III's closest rival packs a 36MP sensor, a 51-point AF system and a host of other features. Still one of the best DSLRs around, but due an update soon.

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