Canon 5D Mark III

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As a wedding photographer I’m forced to shoot in a wide variety of lighting conditions. I shoot with the Canon 5D Mark II. While it’s a great camera, some of the Mark II’s features force me to compromise how I usually capture the hundreds of important, but fleeting moments of a wedding day. Now that I’ve spent some time with the Canon 5D Mark III, I can say that I’m incredibly impressed with the improvements made over the 5D Mark II.



Ergonomics. There are quite a few improvements, and we’ll take them a few at a time. First, I appreciated how the Canon 5D Mark III felt more solid. The 5D Mark III’s grip also fit more nicely in my hands; my fingers wrapped around the grip more comfortably. My thumb rested on a more pronounced protrusion than on the 5D Mark II and was more comfortable to hold for long periods. On the 5D Mark II, with a heavy lens such as the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L or the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS, my thumb would start to turn red from the friction of the grip after several hours of shooting; that didn’t happen with the 5D Mark III. This improvement alone illustrates the improvements in handling comfort that Canon has made. I absolutely loved how much more comfortable it felt in my hands. The entire camera is more rounded on all corners than its predecessor, and the battery and memory card bays are now spring-loaded for those of us looking to save a second or two when we have to swap memory cards or batteries. Its improved weather sealing is also a plus.

Canon made a few changes to the button layout from the Mark II to the Mark III. First, the power button moved to the mode dial, similar to its placement on the Canon 7D. While I prefer turning on my camera with my shooting hand, I generally leave it on (it doesn’t drain the battery much unless its in Live View mode) and can understand Canon’s move to separate the now-programmable main dial lock from the power switch. The Mode dial now has a lock to prevent accidental mode switching, something that would sometimes happen to my 5D Mark II when moving around during a wedding day, or when placing my camera in a backpack or roller for transportation. There is also a new magnification button for zooming on image playback, one that appears in a new location, a feature I’ll touch upon in more detail below.
Menu System. The menu system is displayed beautifully on a gorgeous 3.2-inch LCD. While similar to the 5D Mark II and the 7D, the menus are divided into color-coded subgroups. For a photographer who doesn’t have time to read all the menu options, being able to navigate quickly to the right setting is critical. Due to the improved autofocus system, Canon has dedicated an entire group of menus to customizing the autofocus features. All of the Custom functions are now displayed individually, rather than hidden in subgroups as before. Canon also includes basic information on nearly all of the items displayed in the menus, accessed by pushing the Info button, conveniently located next to the Menu button. While I spent some time with the instruction manual, the in-camera information often provided sufficient explanation on what each setting controlled for on-the-go customization.

My biggest gripe about the menu system is that there is still just one user-defined Custom menu page, restricting you to six items in the Custom menu. I populated mine with items such as LCD brightness (set to turn brighter when showing photos to clients under bright sunlight, and lower to conserve battery or to save your eyes in low light), Highlight alert (useful for the photographer, sometimes confusing for clients), Beep (useful in portraits, annoying at events), Custom white balance, Battery info and Card format.

While it’s only 0.2 inches larger (3.2 versus 3.0-inches on the 5D Mark II), the LCD display on the 5D Mark III seems much larger, thanks to its 3:2 aspect ratio, which matches that of the camera’s native image aspect ratio. Compared to the screen on the 5D II, photos completely fill the screen, so the effect is that of a significantly larger screen at the old aspect ratio.

Shooting Impressions

During my time with the Canon 5D Mark III, I shot in several places: around my home casually; I found a singer performing in a dimly-lit cafe; I shot a wedding, a session with pets indoors; and also shot a quick portrait session.
If there’s one feature that makes a camera sound more professional, it’s the shutter. I noticed that the Canon 5D Mark III’s shutter felt and sounded snappier and more responsive from first shot. Both the shutter lag and the viewfinder blackout times are improved; it’s quite noticeable compared to the 5D Mark II. The camera now also includes a silent shooting mode for a quieter shutter, great for photographers trying to capture moments without distracting their subjects or calling attention to themselves.

The autofocus system is one of the new features that everyone should be very excited about. On the 5D Mark II, I usually used the center cross-type AF point when shooting critical moments. Nearly every wedding photographer I’ve spoken to who uses the 5D Mark II only trusts the center AF point. This limits a photographer’s ability to compose a shot on location. It often forced a photographer to shoot center-focused and possibly at a wider focal length and then crop creatively in post-production or center-focus and recompose, sometimes missing the shot or losing critical focus at wide apertures. The 5D Mark III is the camera I wish my 5D Mark II was. The AF system on the Mark III is more accurate in any AF mode, benefitting from the 61 AF points provided (up to 41 of which are cross-type). I used the zone-AF mode most frequently, with the camera locking focus with any of my lenses quickly anywhere within the AF-selectable zones. Only rarely did I switch to single-point AF to force the camera to focus on exactly what I wanted, for instance if the AF zone was focusing on an object that had more contrast behind my subject. The bottom line is that the new and improved autofocus system provides the confidence a professional needs to know that he’s getting the shot he’s being paid to capture.

One of my favorite new additions to the autofocus system is the “Orientation-linked AF point” setting, which allows a user to set separate AF modes and points for the camera when shooting in both landscape and portrait orientations. Being able to set a single AF point on the eyes of a subject in portrait-orientation while using zone-AF modes for landscape-oriented photos dramatically improved my ability to shoot in fast-paced situations without being distracted by constantly switching AF points manually.
The ISO performance on the 5D Mark III is nothing short of incredible. I was able to shoot indoors without flash at ISO 12,800 with noise and detail levels similar to ISO 3,200 on the 5D Mark II. With ISO performance this good and the rising popularity of portable LED video lights, a portable continuous-lighting setup comes within the realm of possibility, avoiding the tedium of wireless strobe systems.

When using the Auto-ISO feature, you can set the slowest shutter speed you want the camera to use (I used 1/125 of a second) before it chooses to bump up the ISO. With ISO performance this good up through ISO 12,800 or even ISO 25,600, Auto-ISO becomes an option I would use more often (you can also set the lowest and highest ISO you want to allow Auto-ISO to use in the camera settings).

One change that was hard to accept was the new magnification button. The 5D Mark III is the first Canon to move the image playback zoom function away from the two top-right buttons (the AE-lock and AF-select buttons) to a magnification button located immediately above the Playback button, left of the LCD (as it appears on Nikon SLRs). It drove me crazy when I first used it, especially since I’m accustomed to zooming in to check critical focus with my shooting hand rather than having to use both hands (one to hold the camera, one to zoom). The default setting for the magnification button is to zoom in to the center, which made no sense to me if my focus point was not in the center. Once I changed the setting to “Actual size (from selected pt),” I absolutely loved the new magnification button, which would zoom in to 100% at the focus point I used to shoot the image, allowing me to check critical focus immediately and quickly (you can find the various options explained on page 252 of the manual). Zooming in and out of the image is now controlled by the top dial near the shutter release, which was faster and more responsive than pushing or holding the top two buttons (AE-lock and AF-select buttons) to zoom in and out. What’s great about the zoom button is you can push it directly to start image playback zoomed in without touching the playback button. A one-button press allows me to check critical focus at least twice as fast as on the 5D Mark II!
Another new addition is the ability to shoot to two memory cards with one slot holding a CF card and the other an SD card. I shoot in raw+JPG on my 5D Mark II to minimize risk of data corruption. In case a memory card or file is corrupted, I can try to recover the smaller JPG file and vise versa (a fellow photographer told me this has saved him in the past). With the two card slots, though, I set the camera to record raw to the CF card (saving space those JPG files would eat up), while I had the camera save JPG files to the SD card for backup. I could have also increased the storage capacity by having the camera write to the SD card after the CF card was full to reduce unnecessary card switching. Another benefit of shooting JPG to the SD card is that more laptops and tablets are coming with a built-in SD card slot, enabling a photographer to upload photos quickly to share or allowing the photographer to access photos if their CF card reader was lost or damaged on a trip.

One thing I don’t like about the dual-card setup is the camera’s inability to remember which card it should default to for image playback when both cards are in the camera. If you remove the CF card to load photos after a day of shooting, and close the memory card bay with the backup SD card still in the camera (it’s meant for backup only so chances are I would only load the CF card’s raw files from a shoot), the camera will default image playback to card slot 2. When you place a CF card back into card slot 1, the camera does not switch default image playback back to card slot 1, which could be cause for confusion if you continue shooting with the same SD card as a backup card only. At best, it’s still a minor annoyance having to go into the menu to switch image playback back to card slot 1.

I love that the Canon 5D Mark III uses the same Canon LP-E6 battery pack as its predecessor, which is great for 5D Mark II photographers who invested in spare batteries for their 5D Mark II. I noticed the battery seemed to drain faster in the 5D Mark III than in the 5D Mark II based on the number of shots and the remaining charge reported by the camera (about 550 photos with 37% remaining, though I did use an image-stabilized lens which is powered by the camera battery, so that could have shortened the battery life). That seems to differ from the higher battery life reported in CIPA testing, where the 5D Mark III scored 950 shots to the 5D II’s 850 shots. Despite this, the battery still performs well and is capable of lasting though plenty of shots.


Weddings. My favorite feature of the 5D Mark III was definitely the improved AF system. When shooting a wedding, I sometimes shoot two to three of the same photo to ensure an in-focus shot with my 5D Mark II, which leaves me with more post-processing work, sorting through similar photos. Combining the accurate off-center focus points with the AI Focus mode allowed me to capture a bride walking down the aisle without necessarily having to shoot and compose with the center focus point, as I normally do with the 5D Mark II. With the new AF system on the 5D Mark III, I found myself trusting the camera to get a good focus much more often, allowing me to move on to the next shot, and spend more time observing my surroundings to get ready for the next beautiful moment.


Portraits. Again, the AF system made shooting portraits more enjoyable and more reliable for capturing images with a sharp focus on the subject’s eyes. When shooting a portrait, especially at wide apertures, nothing is more aggravating than missing the focus just slightly and ending up with the focus on the nose instead of the eyes. With the new AF system, I had more confidence while shooting and could compose using an AF point directed at the eyes in the upper third of the frame because I no longer had to use a center AF point and recompose (which could potentially result in back-focused shots depending on focus-and-recompose technique).


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