5D Mark IV Review: One Year of Concert Photography Locked

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MarshallG Veteran Member • Posts: 6,815
5D Mark IV Review: One Year of Concert Photography

5D Mark IV One-Year Review

© 2018 by Marshall Goldberg


This review reflects upon a year of experience with the Canon 5D Mark IV. Unlike other camera reviews, the purpose of this review is to help potential purchasers understand the experience of using the camera. I don’t cover and measure every single feature and menu item; I explain how I use the camera. While most of this review describes how I use the camera to photograph musicians, these techniques are very similar to shooting sports or events. Using this camera to its full potential takes skill and practice, and this review should help new and existing owners get up to speed much faster.

The Canon 5D Mark IV has been an absolute joy to use and has exceeded my high expectations. It has unleashed my creativity and lets me work in ways I hadn’t imagined. However, it is not a camera for everyone: It is expensive, large, and quite heavy when used with full-frame zoom lenses.

I have ten years of experience with Canon DSLR’s, previously owning a Rebel, a 7D, and the 7D Mark II. I’ve upgraded these bodies about every three years. The 5D Mark IV control and menu layout is about 95% identical to the 7D Mark II, which makes upgrading from that platform very easy. The only physical control difference is the design of the focus area selection button; the 5D IV also has a touch screen and a few added menu items.

I primarily shoot three genres: Landscapes, Sports, and Concerts. I upgraded from the 7D II to the 5D IV in order to improve the quality of my concert photography; I wanted better low light performance than I was getting with my 7D Mark II. Because of the identical control layout, I was productive with the 5D IV immediately. As with the 7D and 7D Mark II, this camera is very hefty and durable. It is weather sealed, has a magnesium frame and a stellar reputation for quality.

Other than its rugged construction and standout sensor, I think the 5D Mark IV is overkill for landscape photography. There’s nothing wrong with the camera for landscapes; it’s just that I don’t view landscape photography as being very demanding on the camera. I think I could get the same results with any comparable full-frame camera. I shoot landscapes with a tripod, and I generally think that the sensor and the lens are the most important factors, followed by the camera’s ruggedness. When I shoot landscapes, it can be very cold, misty or raining, so the 5D IV’s weather sealing is important. But for the most part, I think the camera controls and other features don’t matter much for landscape photography; I usually focus manually, set my exposure manually and use a remote or timed release on a tripod. The 5D Mark IV doesn’t have a flip-out screen, which would be helpful for landscapes. Because features like flip-out screen and pop-up flash can be accidentally torn off of a camera, I prefer the greater durability that the 5D IV offers by leaving those features out. This is a personal preference you have to decide upon. Similarly, the camera is fine for portrait photography, but under such controlled circumstances, I think the less-expensive 6D Mark II would do just as well.

Sports and Concert photography are a different story altogether. The 5D Mark IV excels tremendously in those genres. There are many reasons why, and the best way I can explain is to describe the shooting experience.

In both Sports and Concert photography, you capture fast-moving subjects. This is difficult to do with any camera. To focus, I rely on “Servo Focus,” which is Canon’s name for Continuous Autofocus. Without getting into all the specs and details, the way it works for me is that I set the camera up for burst shooting and Continuous Focus (Servo). I set my focus point as either a single point or a small group of points. The camera has a joystick which you operate with your right thumb which lets you move the focus point (or focus point cluster) to the position of your subject. This allows you to frame your subject outside the center of the image. In concert photography, this means I can focus on the constantly-moving performer’s eyes, while keeping the body and instrument in the frame. Most of the time, there is a microphone or microphone stand between you and the performer. You have to position yourself so that the microphone doesn’t cover the performer’s face, but even so, the microphone is pretty close to the face and it’s closer to your camera than the performer’s face. With most cameras, autofocus will focus on the guitar, microphone, or mic stand, which will ruin the shot. To overcome this, I use my right thumb to change the focus point mode to single point, and then I use the joystick to move that focus point over the artist and not the microphone. When I shoot, I move the focus point constantly; the focus joystick is the control I use most on the camera. Because faces have low contrast, using a single-point only can cause missed focused. This is why I use a small cluster of focus points when I don’t need to “poke through” a guitar neck or mic stand; the cluster delivers more accurate focus.

Example of using single-point focus on fast-moving, off-center subject with 5D Mark IV

If you don’t use a technique like this, the other ways to attain focus would be to keep the subject centered in the frame, or to use a small aperture like f/5.6 or f/8.0. Concerts are dark, so the small aperture is a non-starter; you need fast glass to get good results. If you center the subject in the frame, you’ll need to take your focal length wide to capture everything you want in your composition. This will require cropping, which reduces image quality substantially. It doesn’t matter that I often scale my images in post; zooming into a performer’s face in post doesn’t produce good photographs.

The next autofocus technique I use is back-button focus. It’s pretty simple: The back of the camera has an AF-ON button, near the shutter release. By default, this button does what you expect: It begins autofocus. In Continuous Autofocus (Servo) mode, the camera will continuously focus until you let go of the AF-ON button; this lets you use focus and recompose when needed. This is useful because moving the focus point with the joystick can sometimes take too long, and if you have to move very fast, you focus, let go of the button, compose and shoot. What back-button focus gives you, then, is both Continuous Autofocus and also Single Autofocus without switching modes. To enable back-button autofocus, you use the camera’s menus to customize the behavior of the shutter button. Instead of being both Metering Start and AF-ON, you change it to Meter Start only. It’s very simple to do.

I found solutions for two problems I had with back-button focus: First, the AF-ON button is very close to the AE Lock (*) button. When I started out, I often hit the AE Lock button by accident. Although my thumb eventually learned where to go, in the beginning, I used the camera menu to customize the AE Lock button to be an AF-ON button; my camera then had two AF-ON buttons next to each other. The other problem with back-button focus is that if you give the camera to a novice to take a photograph, they won’t know what to do. Instead of instructing them, just set the camera’s Mode dial to A+ (“Green Mode”). This will override nearly every setting and put the camera in a fully automatic mode. Not only does it override the back-button focus setting, it prevents your novice friend from changing any other camera setting.

The 5D Mark IV has a very fast, accurate and flexible autofocus system. Its control layout is fantastic for someone who needs precise focus on a fast-moving subject that isn’t centered in the frame, even when there’s another object closer than your subject. It refocuses very fast, so that it can keep up with moving subjects. It takes time to learn how to move your thumb without thinking, but the results are unbeatable. The techniques and controls I described are great for shooting fast-moving subjects such as animals, athletes, children, people dancing, and rock stars. There are many other ways to use the system; I’ve described the way I use the system, not the only way. I can’t begin to stress how Canon’s fabulously ergonomic control layout give you fast-moving, highly precise focus accuracy.

I prefer shooting through the viewfinder for many reasons, and the 5D Mark IV has an enormous, bright pentaprism viewfinder. Although my 7D and 7D Mark II have much better viewfinders than those of consumer-level DSLRs, the 5D Mark IV’s viewfinder is markedly better. I realize that a lot of people these days like mirrorless cameras, and this review isn’t intended to be a “my camera is better than yours” sort of review. Optical viewfinders have advantages, such as very low battery consumption, fast focus, and no display lag. They are less obtrusive than a glowing screen when you’re shooting a concert. Still, I would very much like to see Canon put some sort of clipping indicator in the viewfinder, based on the RAW data. If DSLR is to survive, I believe this is very important.

Sometimes, though, I shoot with LiveView. I typically use LiveView if I need to raise my camera overhead or hold it at a very low angle. Here, the 5D Mark IV dramatically excels over my previous Canon cameras. First, it has a feature called DPAF, which stands for, “Very fast and accurate LiveView autofocus.” (Ok, it really stands for Dual-Pixel Autofocus, but that name’s about as meaningless as “Servo Focus.”) While DPAF is not as fast as viewfinder autofocus, I can still use it to shoot bursts, and it has face tracking. My favorite part is that I can touch on the spot I want to focus using the touchscreen feature. The DPAF feature is primarily intended to make autofocus much better when shooting video, but I don’t shoot much video. Along with touch focus, the camera has a “Touch Shutter,” which takes pictures when you tap the touchscreen. I disable this, because I want to touch the screen for other settings, such as setting focus point.

Some important focus control menu settings you need to know about are the AF release priority settings. I’ve set all of mine for Focus Priority and not Release or Priority, nor Equal Priority. This tells the camera to prioritize focus accuracy over high frame rate. Because I often take a single shot in Servo focus mode under dim light, I was missing focus in some shots until I made these setting changes. If you’re shooting fast-moving subjects outdoors, and your lens is stopped down two stops or so, using Release Priority would make more sense. The names of these settings: AI Servo 1st image priority, AI Servo 2nd image priority, and One-Shot AF Release Priority.

If you follow this review and start using these techniques, there’s another important thing to remember: Hold the camera still! It’s ok if your subject moves, but it is not ok if you move. If you’re firing a burst and moving your hands to track the subject, your photos will be blurry. In the back of your mind, as you’re teaching your right thumb how to activate all of these various controls, you also need to remember: Always, always hold the camera rock-steady when shooting.

Let’s look at the camera’s exposure controls.

Exposure control is extremely challenging and critical, because I deal with very dim lighting, subjects who are lit by spotlights and surrounded by darkness and sometimes bare light bulbs. It’s very easy to fool the meter. At the same time, I need a fairly high shutter speed (I shoot at 1/160 for concerts), and I usually keep the lens wide open unless I’m shooting two or more musicians. This means I need aperture control. After a lot of experimentation, I’ve settled on using Manual Exposure Mode with AutoISO and exposure compensation.

The most stand-out feature of this camera for exposure control is that the sensor has so much ISO latitude and dynamic range that you have the freedom to choose both an aperture and shutter speed of your choice. In “Manual,” the camera can automatically select a corresponding ISO, with Exposure Compensation control available. If you’re an experienced photographer, you need to let that settle in: You choose the aperture while gives the best optical effect, and the shutter speed which gives the optimal amount of motion freeze/motion blur… with no loss of quality. This is also true of the latest Sony and Nikon full-frame cameras, but when you experience it… it’s a big deal!

You still must be mindful of the aperture/shutter/ISO, but you have a huge amount of latitude which wasn’t available before. This is a true breakthrough. If you have a camera like this and you’ve been constraining yourself to ISO 100 ~ 400, you are selling yourself short. With good light, ISO 1600 and 3200 are absolutely viable choices, giving you six stops of freedom. With dim light, of course you’ll lose quality, but I’ve shot ISO 32,000 with fantastic results. It’s truly a new paradigm to explore as a photographer.

Jefferson Starship's Pete Sears at ISO 32,000. Yes, there's grain, but it imparts a velvety texture

How you control exposure isn’t important, but what matters to me is that the 5D Mark IV has extremely flexible, robust control over exposure. It has all the features of most cameras, such as Matrix, Center-weighted and Spot metering. It has very flexible control of AutoISO, and of course it has rear-panel, top-panel and viewfinder exposure displays. It has two dials for adjusting exposure, and the SET button in the center of the rear control dial can be configured to change a third parameter, such as ISO. (You hold SET with your thumb and turn the wheel next to the shutter release with your index finger).

Clearly, your right thumb is going to be very busy with the 5D Mark IV: It will control the type of focus points you use, placement of the focus point, focus start/stop, and one or two Exposure paremters (depending on your setup). You can change all of these settings – the focus details, shutter, aperture and ISO, with the viewfinder held to your eye, as you shoot. In my setup, the index finger changes Aperture, and with my thumb holds the SET button, the index finger changes Exposure Compensation. My thumb controls shutter speed on the big rear dial, and I often use the Lock switch to lock this big dial, because in concerts I often bump the rear control dial and throw off my shutter speed.

Because the lighting is so variable in concerts, I chimp my shots all the time – that is, I press the Play button to review them. I enable the “Highlight Alert” feature, aka “blinkies.” Some criticism of this (and every other) camera: The Highlight Alert and histogram displays only reflect highlight clipping of the JPEG preview image embedded inside the RAW image. This is a sad situation in cameras today and a huge problem if you’re trying to optimize exposure. The important thing to understand is your highlights may not be over-exposed, even though the camera indicates they are. If the camera shows a blown highlight which is only a stop or two overexposed, you’re probably safe.

Canon has a “Rate” button which other brands lack. I LOVE this feature, and I use it every time I shoot. I always take over 1,000 shots at a concert. To give you some idea, I want to take away at least one killer shot of each musician, and that’s about six per band, give or take, plus group shots, which are always very difficult. When I think a shot is particularly good, I press the Rate button to give it four or five stars. This lets me cull through the shots much faster when I’m home. This is a very underrated feature.

Battery life with this camera is fantastic. The camera accepts the same LP-E6 batteries that my 7D and 7D Mark II used. This compatibility alone is a huge plus. I generally use battery-conserving modes, and a lot of that has to do with shooting concerts. I don’t want the image to automatically display after I shoot it, because it’s distracting to the concert-goers. This also improves battery life. I keep the GPS and WiFi features powered off, and most of my shooting is through the viewfinder, although I still review frequently and use LiveView shooting a few times at each show. With these settings, one battery will get through three hours of nearly-continuous concert shooting. With a spare battery in my pocket, I can shoot an all-day festival without a problem.

Speaking of batteries: I got a good deal on the BG-E20 battery grip, and I dislike it very thoroughly: It adds too much weight. Ergonomically, the grip is thicker in portrait orientation than in landscape orientation, which destroys the muscle memory. Instead of having a door which lets you pop in the batteries like my 7D grip did, it has a very flimsy, removable tray and it’s cumbersome to put the batteries in. With my 7D grip, I removed the battery door and put it in a little pocket inside the grip, but with this grip, I need to attach it to the grip by aligning the pins on the battery door; it’s finicky and takes longer than I’d like. It’s expensive, and Canon makes you buy a new grip for every camera model (boo!!!). It has a “stalk” that reaches inside of the battery compartment, and this makes the grip very difficult to store in a camera bag and it means you can’t keep a battery inside the camera (which would give you three batteries; cool!). Unlike the battery grip for Nikon’s D850 and Canon’s latest 1Dx, using the grip doesn’t improve autofocus speed or frame rate; it just gives you longer battery life. Worst of all, on my camera, it makes some of my controls get glitchy, and that I cannot have. There you have it: Proof that I'm not a 100% Canon fanboy.

Another Canon accessory I can’t stand is the included strap. It’s a stiff, slippery fabric with a very garish, “Canon 5D Mark IV” emblazoned in yellow against black… so you can walk around like a Canon billboard. My personal favorite strap is the very inexpensive, Made in USA Op/Tech. They come in solid black; no garish logo, and they’re made of durable, sticky, stretchy neoprene. But there are other brands out there and, like clothing, it’s a personal choice.

I won’t describe my processing workflow in detail, but it basically works like this: I copy the files to my computer from the CF card using a card reader (I don’t use the slower-performing SD card). I browse the images using Canon’s free DPPro software. I’ve always preferred the way that DPPro preserves the Canon colors and other image settings. In DPPro, I first set white balance, often using the eye dropper tool. Because concert lighting is so weird, this is the most important step. I then adjust the shadow and highlight level. Often, I boost shadows and cut highlights, but it varies. I sometimes apply lens corrections. After these non-destructive, lossless changes, I save the image out as a highest-quality JPEG and open it in Photoshop. In Photoshop, I crop the image and sometimes clone out defects. I fix rotation if needed. I apply my watermark using a brush tool and save the image. Then I scale the image down and save it out with a _sm suffix on the filename. That’s about it.

Still, you need to decide whether to buy this camera, Sony’s or Nikon’s. It’s well-known that both of them offer full-frame bodies with higher resolution, higher ISO capability and wider dynamic range, which are things that matter to me. I purchased my camera a little over a year ago, and the Sony A7 RIII and Nikon D850 didn’t exist, which made my decision much easier. Meanwhile, the price has dropped $500-$700 in the past year. Because I haven’t used those cameras very much, I’m not qualified to make a detailed comparison. I won’t switch. For starters, I buy a new camera body every 3 to 4 years. By then, who knows, but it’s likely that Canon will be competitive. I have a big investment in Canon L lenses and the flash system, and I like my camera.

I’ve compared the test images of the Canon against the Nikon and Sony using DPReview: I’m hard-pressed to see a significant difference. Just because a difference is measurable in a lab, it doesn’t mean there’s a difference that affects your photographs. The 30 megapixels of the 5D Mark IV already strain my computer. They are slow to transfer, open and edit. Working regularly with 42 or 48-megapixel images would be much slower for me, or perhaps mean buying a new computer. I wouldn’t at this point buy a Sony because their durability is not yet proven (they failed a garden hose test which Nikon and Canon easily passed) and they don’t have a professional services group like Canon’s. I would trust Nikon but not Sony for a paid assignment. Of course, this situation with Sony will possibly improve in two years. In ten years of Canon shooting, I haven’t had a single equipment failure of camera, lens or flash. I treat my equipment with great care, but it can get banged around and subjected to dust and rain. Canon’s robust, weatherproof camera and lens construction handles this abuse with ease.

When I shoot, especially a concert, dozens of parameters flow through my mind all at once: The music, the ambience, the lighting, the subject, the composition, focus, exposure… it’s a heightened state of awareness and consciousness. I experience it connected to my camera and through my camera. It would be a vast understatement to say that I have an emotional connection to my Canon. It is my muse. Eric Clapton had his black Stratocaster, B.B. King had Lucille, and I’ve got my 5D Mark IV. This is the camera for me, and in my hands, it sings.

 MarshallG's gear list:MarshallG's gear list
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Canon EF 16-35mm F2.8L II USM Canon EF 70-200mm F2.8L IS II USM +2 more
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
30 megapixels • 3.2 screen • Full frame sensor
Announced: Aug 25, 2016
MarshallG's score
Average community score
bad for good for
Kids / pets
Action / sports
Landscapes / scenery
Low light (without flash)
Flash photography (social)
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Canon 6D Mark II Canon EOS 5D Mark IV Canon EOS 7D Canon EOS 7D Mark II Nikon D850 Sony a7
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