Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Category: Semi-professional Full Frame Camera
Conclusion - Pros
- Good resolution and detail in raw files
- Good color and tonality across the ISO range
- Reliable metering even in difficult contrast situations
- Very responsive and snappy operation, thanks to new Digic 5+ processor
- 6 frames per second continuous shooting with good buffering
- Excellent build-quality with magnesium shell and weather-sealing
- Intuitive user interface and good ergonomics with large number of external controls
- Very comprehensive user interface customization options
- Excellent viewfinder with 100% coverage
- Good high resolution LCD monitor
- Reliable and quick AF system with comprehensive customization options
- Efficient vignetting, distortion and CA correction
- Full manual control in video mode
- Choice between IPB and ALL-I video compression modes
- Headphone socket
- Rear-dial becomes touch-sensitive when recording video
- In-camera HDR mode with many options
- Multi-exposure mode
- Comprehensive Auto ISO customization options
- Efficient silent-shutter option, single shot or continuous drive mode
- Dual SD and CF card slots
- Side-by-side playback mode and rating allow for initial image selection on the go
- Good battery life
- Good bundled raw converter with comprehensive feature set (Digital Photo Pro)
Conclusion - Cons
- Destructive noise reduction results in mushy JPEGs, even at base ISO
- Visible sharpening artifacts at default settings
- Heavy-handed noise reduction leads to lack of low-contrast detail at higher ISOs
- Distortion correction not available 'on the fly'
- Built-in microphone only monaural
- Soft video output with less dynamic range than stills
- No built-in AF illuminator
Since the launch of the original EOS 5D in 2005 Canon's 5D series has become extremely popular with enthusiast photographers and for many has been the gateway to the world of 'full-frame' photography. Unsurprisingly, more than 3 years after the launch of the EOS 5D Mark II, the latest model in the line, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, was one of the most eagerly awaited cameras that we can remember. When Canon revealed the new model's headline specs, however, many Canon users felt a sense of anticlimax. With a pixel count only modestly increased compared to its predecessor and few other 'headline' improvements it is easy to see why some people initially considered the Mark III to be a minor upgrade.
This first impression changes rapidly as soon as you actually hold the camera in your hands and start shooting. It quickly becomes obvious that the Mark III is a totally new camera with significant improvements over its predecessor. The new model takes many user interface elements of Canon's flagship APS-C DSLR the EOS 7D and combines them with a 22MP full-frame CMOS sensor that is capable of capturing high quality output up to very high sensitivities. Throw in 6 frames per second continuous shooting and a very sophisticated AF system with lots of fine-tuning potential and you've got yourself a super-flexible photographic tool that will get the job done on a wide range of assignments - from landscape to action photography, from studio portraits to wildlife.
Video shooters will appreciate the new live view/movie mode switch, the full manual control in movie mode, a choice between All-I and IPB compression modes and sockets for both an external microphone and headphones to monitor the sound recording. But everyone will enjoy the improved build quality. With its magnesium body, reassuring weight and comfortable rubber grip coating the 5D Mark III feels like a real quality-product in your hands and the very comprehensive customization options allow you to fine-tune its operation in almost every imaginable way and make it suit your specific requirements and style.
Is it all sunshine and lollipops then? Not quite. The list of 'Cons' above is rather short but there are a couple of points you should at least be aware of before clicking on the 'Buy' button. We're disappointed by how the 5D Mark III renders detail in JPEG files, and low-contrast details, especially, look rather mushy, even at low sensitivities. At higher ISOs, noise reduction is more aggressive by default than we would like, resulting in comparatively clean but disappointingly soft images, when viewed at 100%. The 5D Mark III's sensor is capable of excellent results but if you want to get maximum detail you'll have to shoot and convert raw files. Video output could be sharper too, and videographers may also miss a 60D-style swivel screen for waist-level or overhead shooting.
All of the other 'Cons' we've listed are of a rather minor nature though and if you can live with the limitations described above the Canon EOS 5D Mark III will make you very happy indeed. It's a capable camera that is a lot of fun to work with, whether you're a 5D Mark II user already or completely new to the 5D-series.
The Canon EOS 5D Mark III's out-of-camera JPEGs offer good colors, tonality and dynamic range with a very smooth highlight roll-off but in terms of pixel-level detail the images are not quite as good as we might expect from a 22MP sensor with a Canon L-lens mounted in front of it. Even at low sensitivities the camera's JPEG engine applies visibly destructive noise reduction which results in mushy low-contrast detail. This combined with the fairly aggressive default sharpening means at a 100% view the 5D Mark III JPEGs can have a slightly 'processed' look to them and fine-tuning image parameters such as noise reduction or sharpening doesn't help much.
When processing the camera's raw files things look a little different. Reducing the noise reduction and applying some customized, small-radius sharpening reveals unexpected levels of detail and shows what the 5D Mark III's sensor, in combination with a good quality lens, is really capable of. The difference is particularly obvious in areas of low-contrast such as fabric, or distant foliage or grass.
At higher ISOs the story is pretty much the same. The Canon EOS 5D Mark III produces clean images up to very high sensitivities but this is thanks in part to strong default noise reduction which also smooths away a lot of fine detail. You can improve things by disabling noise reduction (this doesn't actually mean that no noise reduction is applied, even with NR disabled there is a base level that cannot be switched off) but at ISO 25600 and higher noise becomes intrusive enough to make the 'Standard' NR setting the better option. That said, just like at base ISO, the best results can be achieved through processing your images in a raw converter. The camera's raw noise levels are low and a customized mix of chroma and luminance noise reduction can get you high ISO results that show better detail and a less processed look than the out-of-camera JPEGs.
Overall there is not much to complain about the Canon's image quality but if you want maximum image detail you have no other option but process your raw files. For most potential EOS 5D Mark III users this is not likely to be much of a problem as we would expect them to use raw conversion in their workflow anyway - not necessarily to increase image detail but to increase editing flexibility.
In terms of handling, control layout and design the Canon EOS 5D Mark III is much closer to the newer APS-C DSLR EOS 7D than to its predecessor the 5D Mark II. The camera is also built like a tank and a clear step forward in terms of build-quality. With its chunky magnesium body and soft rubber grip coating the EOS 5D Mark III feels like a real quality product and is comfortable to hold, even for extended periods of time. The Mark III is far from being a small or lightweight camera but it makes a well-balanced package with Canon's L-lenses. For those who prefer an even bigger body there is the optional BG-E11 battery grip.
All controls, button and dials, are sensibly located, with those controlling important shooting settings within reach of the index finger of thumb of your right hand, allowing for full control while composing an image through the viewfinder. Compared to the 5D Mark II most buttons are slightly bigger, too, which is useful when operating the camera with cold fingers or gloves but the bigger buttons are very comfortable to use in any condition.
User interface elements from the EOS 7D include the better integration of movie mode, the Q-menu and the separation of the control dial lock and the power switch (which has moved to a new position under the mode dial). The movie mode/live view selection switch allow you to enter both modes by the flick of a switch and the 'Quick-menu', which is new on the 5D-level, gives you quick access to a range of frequently changed parameters such as white balance, image quality or drive mode. Some of the Q-menu's parameters can be accessed via hard-buttons as well but the Q-menu gives you a good overview of the current settings and some added flexibility.
Overall the Canon EOS 5D Mark III handles really nicely and is a joy to use in most shooting situations but even if some aspects of its user interface don't suit your personal shooting style its very comprehensive customization options will almost certainly allow you to fine-tune the camera operation to match your requirements.
The Final Word
As you can tell from the 'Pros' and 'Cons' list at the top of this page we rather liked the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. It is indeed a great camera and for current 5D Mark II users or other owners of Canon full-frame lenses the all-important question 'Should I buy one?' is an easy one to answer. The 5D Mark III is in almost every aspect a better camera than its predecessor and an extremely enjoyable photographic tool. Competing models like the Nikon D800/E have a few unique tricks up their sleeve (36MP capture and an option to record uncompressed video footage) but for most people, most of the time, the differences wouldn't be important enough to warrant swapping systems.
However, for those who haven't bought into a camera system yet the issue is a little more complicated. The Nikon D800 and its supposedly higher-resolution sibling the D800E are the 5D Mark III's only real rivals in the full-frame enthusiast camera bracket of the market and their whopping pixel count of 36MP make them arguably better choices for studio work and any other application that requires maximum amounts of detail. It's worth noting, too, that the D800 is currently $500 cheaper than the 5D Mark III.
On the other hand the Canon offers faster burst shooting, which makes it more suitable for capturing fast-moving action. It's also got a wider ISO range and offers greater customization when it comes to certain areas of its feature set. Both cameras' AF systems are very sophisticated, offer a lot of customization options and very high tracking reliability of subjects that move across the frame.
Ultimately, both the D800 and 5D Mark III are excellent photographic tools. Which one is best for you is a question that only you can answer, but if you do go for the Canon EOS 5D Mark III you know you've not only got yourself a very capable camera, you've also got one that is a lot of fun and exciting to shoot with.
Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
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Ergonomics & handling
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Movie / video mode
Photographers who want an extremely versatile photographic tool that is capable of great results in many shooting situations.
Not so good for
JPEG only shooters
The Canon EOS 5D Mark III is not only a very capable photographic tool in almost all areas, it's also fun and exciting to shoot with. The only downside is the slightly soft and over-processed out-of-camera JPEGs. This is only visible at pixel-level but we would expect most of the camera's target group to shoot raw anyway.
- In-depth Review: Nikon D800
- In-Depth Review: Canon EOS 5D Mark II
- Dan Chung's 5D Mark II vs. Nikon D800 video shootout