Canon’s EOS 5D Full-Frame Digital SLR ; Is This The Affordable Pro Digital We’ve Been Waiting For?

Canon's new EOS 5D full-frame sensor digital SLR with 12.8-megapixel resolution set off a lot of speculation and opining in the electronic ether, which was to be expected. What was surprising was that it launched an argument as to what is affordable for a professional-grade digital camera. Since I got into photography in 1952, automobiles have increased in price about 10 times, and gasoline about the same. So the Canon EOS 5D at $3299 would have cost $329 in the '50s, which in reality did not buy much in terms of a professional camera in those days. With any film camera you had to feed it film and then process it, much like filling a car's gas tank. With a digital camera you can make as many pictures as you please and the only cost is pennies to charge the battery. So, from my perspective and experience the new Canon EOS 5D isn't just affordable, it's a bargain.

So what do you get for this bargain? If I may again use the analogy of automobiles, today's digital SLR exemplified by the new Canon EOS 5D embodies far more progress in functional value than cars, at least when compared to those available in the '50s. Besides eliminating the need for film and processing to record images with a lens, today's autoexposure, autofocus, and auto white balance digital SLR assures a very large percentage of high-quality image results without much user effort. It also requires a relatively modest understanding of the technology that supports the photographic process. The physical results are 12x18" print images at 240dpi direct without any special processing. And you can, by simple interpolation applied to a raw file, extend the size readily to 16x24" without any appreciable loss of image quality.

Canon EOS 5D Features And Performance
Although there is much that is new and improved in the features and performance controls in this new 5D digital SLR, like the EOS lens mount, there is much that has become standard over the years. This makes this Canon EOS familiar, and easy to learn and use. Probably the most striking feature is its size and weight, much closer to that of an EOS 20D. I found the feel of the camera similar to the Canon EOS A2 35mm SLR I enjoyed using for a number of years. About the only thing that's bigger rather than smaller than the big brother Canon EOS-1Ds is the 5D's 2.5" LCD display on the back of the camera.

To obtain unobstructed views of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles I had to shoot from the sidewalk, necessitating the widest angle setting of the Canon EF 16-35mm zoom. Also called into play for this type of contrasty shot was the EOS 5D's full dynamic range.
All Photos © 2005, David B. Brooks, All Rights Reserved

New And Improved Features
Canon refers to the EOS 5D as a premium model, including many new and improved features such as an upgraded version of their (free) raw conversion software, Digital Photo Professional 2.0. Even set for raw file output, the full-frame sensor EOS 5D can record in one of five different Picture Styles. Canon describes this as being like choosing a specific film for different subjects, like portraits or landscapes. And each of these Picture Styles can also be customized to adjust quality factors like sharpness, contrast, and saturation. To process and save the image data captured by the 5D's 12.8-megapixel full-frame chip, Canon has designed an efficient single "motherboard," including their latest DIGIC processor and DDR SDRAM. This provides up to 3 fps continuous shooting and burst performance of 60 Large/Fine JPEG or 17 raw frames, which is a lot of fast shooting for this high a resolution camera.

Also newly developed for the EOS 5D is a nine-point autofocus sensor with six supplemental invisible points, which provides better servo tracking performance. This is backed up by an improved 35-zone autoexposure sensor system with four modes, including the choice of 3.5 percent spot metering. The Canon EOS 5D also sports a new vertical travel four-blade shutter, providing 1/8000 sec shutter speed (1/200 sec flash sync speed). Besides high performance this new shutter is rugged, providing a duty cycle of 100,000 exposures. The new, much larger 2.5" LCD display with 230,000 pixels and a wide viewing angle is more effective for viewing images; the generous area makes the use of both image and its histogram side by side much more effective.

As I moved around the satin sheen of stainless steel curves the sky was in constant change, illuminating the curves with different colors of light. Every few feet revealed an entirely new composition, none of which I wanted to miss.

Three all-new interchangeable focusing screens were designed for the 5D, with the option of replacing the standard screen with either a grid screen or one optimized for manual focus with fast lenses. The EOS 5D's full-frame sensor sports 8.2 micron pixels, which are relatively large and gather light efficiently. This reduces shadow noise. You can also set the camera, via Custom Functions, for automatic noise filtering for long exposures. Custom Functions also support an even wider range of ISO speed settings than the standard of 100-1600 to include 50-3200.

Leaving almost nothing critical that's not new or upgraded, the 5D's white balance capabilities have been refined and provide nine different discrete subject lighting choices in addition to Auto White Balance (AWB), with control of all dimensions of light color, including magenta-green as well as amber-blue, applied to all shooting modes, including raw and combined raw-JPEG.

The usual camera shooting modes like Program, Aperture- and Shutter-Priority have been extended with a "C" setting, which stands for a Custom mode of stored camera settings. There are in all 21 Custom Functions with a total of 57 settings. The usual save options now include flexible, multiple folder creation, and selection for image file storage on CompactFlash cards. And if you are not satisfied with the basic 5D configuration there are of course accessories like a battery grip, doubling the battery capacity and adding a convenient vertical grip and shutter release.

On the side of the Walt Disney Concert Hall facing north, the high, steep sides reflected cold gray clouds, while light from a clear sky above brought out the blue colors of a sculptured fountain.

Field Testing The Canon EOS 5D
Testing a new camera is the fun part of what I do, with an added bit of mystery and adventure. Canon also added to the exploration by sending along a new Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 zoom lens, adding more to the mystery and the challenge. One subject that came to mind for my tests was the new Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles designed by Frank O. Gehry, the creator of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Characteristic of these two buildings is their unusual multi-planed curved shapes covered with stainless steel. I was sure this building would be challenging to photograph. Just one subject was hardly enough though. I recalled photographing the Conservatory in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park over 20 years ago on Kodachrome. It is a very large Victorian greenhouse that would provide its own technical challenges quite distinct from the new Disney Concert Hall, and certainly would pose an aesthetic contrast from modern to period classic. In addition, inside the Golden Gate Conservatory is a large tropical garden with many different exotic flowering plants, yet another distinct photographic challenge.

With a plan mapped out I charged the 5D's battery while sitting down with the camera and instruction manual to familiarize myself with the controls. After making a few preliminary test shots, I got back to my office and downloaded the files, converted them with Canon's Digital Photo Professional from raw to TIFF and opened them in Photoshop. They looked good so I was ready to go.

The San Francisco Golden Gate Park Conservatory is a magnificent Victorian greenhouse with thousands of glass panes framed in white painted wood. Inside is a hugely varied tropical garden with some great jungle plants over two stories tall and probably as old as the building. Photographed with a Canon EF 28-105mm f/2.8 lens on the EOS 5D the detail captured in the image is pristinely sharp with every subtle facet distinguished.

Processing And Evaluating The Image Results
With hundreds of raw files to process from the Los Angeles and San Francisco tests I used the Canon Digital Photo Professional software to batch process the raw files. I chose not to use any adjustments in CDPP but rather saved each CR2 file to a standard 48-bit TIFF file so I could individually color correct and edit the images according to the individual unique attributes of each picture. My goal was to see just how accurate the camera's autoexposure placed the gamut and also how effectively the white balance auto-adjustment performed. Once the files were converted to high-bit TIFFs I used both Photoshop CS2 and LaserSoft's SilverFast HDR alternately to do the initial color correction and editing. I then opened each file with Adobe's Photoshop Elements 3.0 and used its QuickFix to apply any tweaking to adjust highlight density, open shadows, enhance mid-tone contrast, and, if need be, fine-tune color temperature and hue balance.


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