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. By the time Canon actually announced the EOS 5D Mark III on March 2 2012, its specification seemed almost a bit of a letdown, especially priced at £2,999 in the UK and $3,499 in the US for the body only.
But while it might not have the headline-grabbing 36MP pixel count of the Nikon D800, Canon’s latest full-frame camera has lots to offer enthusiast photographers.
With 22.3 million effective pixels, the Canon 5D Mark III’s sensor only has 1.2MP more than the 21.1MP Canon 5D Mark II that it replaces, but it has 4.2MP more than the 18.1MP Canon EOS-1DX at the top of Canon’s DSLR lineup.
Whereas the Canon 1DX has two Digic 5+ processors, the 5D Mk II has one, which in combination with its eight-channel readout means that it has a top continuous shooting speed of 6fps. 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 Mk 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 ISO 100-25600 in 1/3-stop or whole stop increments, and it can be expanded to include L: ISO 50, H1: ISO 51200, H2 ISO 102400.
The Canon 5D Mark III has the same 61-point wide-area autofocus system as the flagship Canon EOS-1DX. 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. It doesn’t offer the f/8 sensitivity of Nikon’s latest system though – it only extends to f/5.6, which restricts the use of teleconverters.
Predictably, Canon has upgraded the metering system to its iFCL metering. Existing Canon 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 Mk 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-1DX.
Until now Canon hasn’t had a DSLR with in-camera HDR recording, but the Canon EOS 5D Mk 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 2 and 3 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.
The Canon 5D Mark III Verdict
Our testing team put the Canon 5D Mark III through rigorous challenges, both in the lab and out in the field. You can read all about these full scientific results over on our sister site, TechRadar. If you want some of the key points from the full test and the final verdict on the Canon 5D Mark III, here is what our head of testing had to say:
On Build & Handling…
The camera is large, but not in the same league as the Canon EOS-1DX, 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 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.
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. Perhaps the hinge is considered too much of a weak point, or maybe Canon is saving that for the 4K-capable camera it announced was in development back in November last year.
Tthe Canon 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 ISO 25,600.
Our tests also show that from around ISO 100 and above, the Canon 5D Mark III has a slightly higher signal to noise ratio than the Nikon D800, so images have less noise.
However, as is usually the case, noise becomes quite noticeable when the upper sensitivity expansion settings (ISO 51,200 and ISO 102,400) 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 Mk III is capable of producing some very impressive results in low light.
The Final 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.
While it may not have excited the photographic world in the same way that the Nikon D800 seems to have, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III is a very capable camera.
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. Costing £2,999/$3,499 for the body only, however, the price seems a little on the high side.
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.