Canon’s 5D series is one of the company’s longest and most successful products, a digital camera series that’s affordable enough to be within the reach of the prosumer but powerful enough to be a primary choice of the professional. When it arrived in 2005, the Canon EOS 5D was heralded for the amount of power that it packed into the relatively small chassis. It quickly became the body of choice for countless photographers and was particularly well received
In 2008, Canon released the Canon 5D Mark II, which had the ability to shoot full, professional HD video. Countless photographers and videographers purchased the camera, and it became the darling of shooters looking to expand into video and cinematographers who wanted a motion-picture-quality system in the smallest possible package. More than a dozen Hollywood films, including a number of those in the Marvel “Avengers” universe, used the 5D Mark II for production footage.
While the 5D Mark II broke new ground with its video prowess, the 5D Mark III arrived in 2012, bringing with it modest improvements in sensor resolution, frame rate and processing, AF, metering and a few other key features.
Canon is hoping to recreate the enthusiastic embrace creatives showed the 5D Mark II by giving the system cinema-quality DCI 4K video recording abilities and the company’s video AF system, called Dual Pixel. The 5D IV also includes the powerful AF system found on the Canon 7D Mark II and Canon 1D X Mark II and boasts improved frame rate, wider ISO range, internal GPS and WiFi, and more.
Despite all the improvements and despite a few tweaks to the controls, the body and the shooting experience are largely unchanged from the first model in 2005. After nearly a dozen years, many photographers have wondered aloud if the camera has kept up with the times. After several weeks of reviewing the camera, we have our answer, and it’s a bit more complex than we expected.
One of the changes faced by the new Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is that the camera market has changed radically in the years since the original 5D was introduced. In 2005, there were no mirrorless cameras. Micro Four Thirds wouldn’t arrive until 2008, Sony didn’t release its first NEX mirrorless camera until 2010, and the Fuji X-Pro 1 arrived in 2012.
DSLR was not only king in 2005, it was all there was. Since then, of course, the mirrorless market has exploded and technology has improved in numerous ways. While the 5D was a pioneering camera, the 5D Mark IV, as the name implies, is an upgrade—albeit a good one.
Video technology has also improved radically since the 5D Mark II broke ground in SLR video resolution. When the 5D Mark II arrived, it was a breakthrough for the HD video capabilities, which even the then-flagship Canon 1Ds Mark II did not have. With the 5D Mark IV, the 4K video tops out at 30fps while the new flagship DSLR, the 1D X Mark II, has 60fps 4K. The Canon 5D Mark IV also lacks the CFast card slot found in the 1DX Mark II, instead using dual CF and SD slots.
Canon has also pivoted in its video strategy, something that has seemingly affected some of the choices the company has made in the video capabilities of both the 5D Mark IV and the 1D Mark II. In 2012, Canon introduced a cinema-specific body aimed at the cinematographer market, the C100, and it’s released impressive upgrades ever since.
That seems to likely be the reason that neither the 5D Mark IV nor the 1D Mark II can send full 4K video to an external recorder over the HDMI port, only HD. While this might be explained away as some technical limitation, all of Sony’s 4k-capable a7 mirrorless cameras are capable of sending 4k over HDMI, and they are considerably smaller and have less-powerful processors. That has left videographers feeling that the Canon 5D IV HDMI output was limited to HD in order to encourage sales of the company’s video-dedicated C-series for true cinema-quality 4K work.
The competition, especially when it comes to 4K video, is immense today, with Sony particularly keen to be the dominant player in video. Photographers can currently buy a full-frame mirrorless camera from Sony that’s considerably smaller, than the 5D Mark IV and has better 4K video capabilities, or they can purchase the new Sony a99 II, a DSLR that not only produces amazing 4K video but can capture with still-image frame rates nearly matching the 1D X Mark II, for the same price as the 5D Mark IV.
Like we said, the market conditions have radically changed since the release of the Canon 5D, and so the 5D Mark IV not only has to be evaluated against its progeny but against the products from companies looking to dethrone Canon’s position as king of interchangeable-lens video in a still photography body.
Familiarity Breeds Competency
One of the first things we noticed when we picked up the 5D Mark IV was how familiar it felt. If you’ve shot with any of the 5D bodies, you will immediately be able to pick up the system and start shooting. The first day we tested the 5D Mark IV, we had studio photographer Chris Carroll give it a spin on a model shoot, with no time to familiarize himself. Carroll has been photographing with the 5D line since the Mark II, and he was able to complete the entire shoot, and one a few days later, without looking at a manual or missing a beat.
I, too, had this experience, having reviewed and shot every 5D since its inception and having shot Canon systems as a reviewer since the 1D arrived. It’s comforting to shoot with a system that’s so familiar. During pre-dawn hours at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, I could instantly change settings without looking at the dials, knowing instinctively where to head for the controls.
There are few changes to the physical design of the body. The most notable is the addition of a new control on the back, an autofocus control switch that’s easier than the traditional Canon user experience of using a button located on the grip, and which is also programmable. (At dawn and dusk I set it to control ISO so that I wouldn’t have to keep taking my hand off the controls to dial in ISO with the top button.)
The 5D Mark IV also doesn’t address the issue that the camera has minimal resistance against moisture. The lack of weatherproofing is one of the main reasons the 5D isn’t used as widely by sports and news shooters, and why outdoor photographers check the weather before taking their 5D system on the road. After 12 years, it would be nice to see the 5D gain professional-level dust-and-moisture resistance, especially when smaller and/or less expensive bodies from Olympus, Pentax, Fujifilm and others have better weather protection.
One major addition is the new touchscreen LCD, which is incredibly helpful. The Canon 1DX Mark II has a touchscreen, but it’s only functional for live view video focus selection—something that made us scratch our heads. The 5D Mark IV uses the touchscreen interface for all controls, and it’s much faster than spinning dials and pushing buttons. The new time lapse movie mode, for example, often took me several tries when using the dials—I’d forget to scroll over to the OK choice and exit instead of saving my settings. It often took me a minute or more to adjust the settings, but with the touch interface it took only a few seconds.
Thanks to the similar schedule of the festival, I was able to test several scenes exactly in the same place, with almost exactly the same lighting as last year, when I shot the event with the Canon 5DS. The low-light focus was much better with the 5D Mark IV, as was subject tracking in general. I’ve tested the AF system in the 1D X Mark II, which is also in the 5D Mark IV, and it is exceptional. The 5D Mark IV is no less impressive. Hot air balloons were set up for a night “glow” event, tethered to the ground and firing their burners to light up the balloons against the dark sky. The event continued past sunset, and the camera was able to focus with even minimal lighting from distant balloons. It was only when the burners were off and the sky was completely dark that the camera failed to lock focus.
The way the 5D IV talks to the world is much improved over the 5D III. The 5D IV has a built-in GPS receiver, which allows geotagging of images, including altitude measurements. The camera can also sync its clock with the hyper-accurate GPS system, enabling photographers working together to ensure they have cameras that are time-sync’d and in the right time zone.
The built-in WiFi is much more useful than the external transceiver needed with the 5D Mark III. For cameras with near-field communication (NFC), setup is a snap, and for non-NFC devices, such as the iPhone, it takes less than five minutes to set the connection between camera and smartphone. An iOS app from Canon is relatively modest in features, but it does allow for remote control of the camera, with live view and instant review.
At the Albuquerque test shoot, capturing fireworks was vastly simplified by the app’s remote capabilities. To reduce camera shake, I used the 5D Mark IV on a tripod and used the app in remote control mode to snap photos in bulb mode. Since the app was getting live view from the camera, I could use the tool to trigger the shutter at precise moments, like when a burst was about to fill edge-to-edge on the frame. I also used the remote to toggle between still and video mode, capturing some 4K footage without shaking the camera by touching the controls.
With a UBS 3.0 connection, the camera can perform rapid file transfers in absence of a card reader. At the Balloon Fiesta test shoot, one of the videographers had left their card reader at home. Canon lent him a standard USB 3.0 cable, and he was back to work.
The battery for the 5D Mark IV has excellent life, as did the batteries in previous cameras in the system. I began a day on a full charge at 4 a.m., shooting stills, 4K video and time-lapse movies, and by the time we stopped for a break at 11 a.m., the battery was only half-full (though to some people it would have been half empty.) That evening, although I had recharged the battery, the rest of the long exposure frames and videos only depleted a half. In all, there were more than 800 images shot, many of them as long as 30 seconds, a half-hour of time-lapse in-camera movie mode and another 30 minutes of 4K video.
While the sensor in the 5D Mark IV has increased in resolution from 22 to 34MP, the dynamic range has increased, up to 13.6 stops for the 5D Mark IV vs. 11.7 for the 5D Mark III, according to the lab tests at DxOMark.com. While the range has increased relative to its predecessors, it has not increased to match several competing cameras. The Nikon D810 has a dynamic range of 14.8. (a full extra stop); the Pentax K-1 has a range of 14.6. The Sony a7R II, which is a 42 megapixel camera (so it has more pixels in less space—which should decrease dynamic range) has a dynamic range just ahead of the 5D Mark IV of 13.9.
ISO sensitivity is also up, but again, not as high a level as some competitors. DxOMark ranks sensors in terms of low-light performance and rates the ISO setting at which noise increased past a standard threshold. The 5D Mark III had a score of 2293. The 5D Mark IV gets a score of 2995. The Nikon D810’s rating was about 100 ISO lower, but the K1 has a DxO rating of 3280 and the Sony a7R II has a score of 3434.
Theses scores should be taken with a grain of salt since real-world conditions will, of course, vary, and because the cameras all employ slightly different on-chip noise reduction techniques. Last year I shot the Balloon Fiesta with the Canon 5DS, which has a rating of 2381 (again, vs. 2995 for the 5D Mark IV), and I saw a rough 1-2 stop improvement in noise in my low-light shots.
Again thanks to having shot the same event with two Canon 5D series cameras, I had an opportunity to evaluate similar images side-by-side. The vendors on the main promenade were in the same places as last year, and the venue lighting was the same. While dawn patrol (the balloons that launch at sunrise to test the air currents) was slightly later this year, they still began setup in the dark.
In just about every low-light situation, I felt the Canon 5D Mark IV provided 1-2 stops of lower noise compared to the Canon 5DS. This would put it on par or slightly ahead of the ISO range of the 5D Mark III, which had fewer pixels, which would otherwise make the 5D Mark IV noisier than the Mark III. Clearly Canon has a lot of work with the noise-reducing algorithms in the processor of the newer DIGIC 6 chip in the 5D Mark IV.
Our Canon 5D Mark IV Time Lapse Movie Tests
The video capabilities of the Canon 5D series have, since they were introduced in the Mark II, been considered some of the best on the market. The 4K video footage we’ve recorded is excellent, though as mentioned at the beginning, it’s not possible to use an external recorder over HDMI to capture 4K, a big limitation in the video field.
The video from the 5D Mark IV is 4:2:2, which is better than the majority of Canon DSLR cameras (which were 4:2:0). If this isn’t a term you are familiar with, just know that the second and third number refer to how many pixels are used to sample color out of 4 pixels on each of two rows on the sensor. The best is 4:4:4, it means every pixel in both pairs of rows sampled for color data. In 4:2:2, the camera groups two pixels together on both of the sampled rows, reading them as one. In 4:2:0, the second row doesn’t sample at all, it uses the color data from the row above.
The 5D Mark IV has improved the video sampling, bringing it on par with the competition. However, the Mark IV does not have the ability to capture C-LOG footage, upsetting many video shooters. You can think of a video LOG mode, be it Canon’s C-LOG or the more common S-LOG, as being like a raw file for video. Videos shot in LOG maintain more of the dynamic range available on the sensor, and it’s the format that pros capture video in. That the Canon 5D Mark IV is missing LOG recording, when cameras from Sony and Panasonic have LOG support has been upsetting to scores of videographers.
While cameras from other manufacturers allow either full-frame or crop 4K, the Canon 5D Mark IV only allows for cropped video with a 1.7x crop equivalent. Cropped video is higher-quality than a full-frame capture would be but changes the look of a lens and the workflow.
When videographers switch to cropped 4K, it’s the equivalent of using an APS-C crop on a full-frame lens. There’s a different perspective (a 35mm lens crops to 60mm, a 50mm crops to 85mm) and a different amount of background defocus when wide open.
The Sony a7S II and a7R II, by comparison, can shoot either full-frame (with a bit of loss in quality) or crop. It provides more flexibility for the 4K shooter, especially when their end product is HD and not 4K.
These are the main reasons there has been a lot of debate about the 5D Mark IV and its video capabilities among long-time Canon video shooters. The bottom line is that the 4K video from the system is very good, but it’s not as market-defining as the HD video was on the 5D Mark II.
Our Canon 5DF Mark IV Video Tests
If you’re a Canon shooter with an older 5D Mark II or other older Canon, the 5D Mark IV is a truly excellent camera upgrade. It will not suit the needs of all-weather photographers or those who require the durability of the 1D X Mark II, but that has always been the case with the 5D series. For wedding and portrait photographers especially, the 5D Mark IV is a powerful and relatively affordable choice. If you’re looking to get a camera that’s like your 5D but with faster AF, slightly wider ISO range, faster capture rate and faster processing, this is the body for you.
Photographers shopping for their first “pro” body should seriously consider the 5D Mark IV but should also be aware that the market is heating up in this space. No longer just competing against Nikon, there are bodies with many similar or greater features, for much less money. That said, until Nikon updates the D750 with the sensor and AF system from the D5, the only body this size that might challenge the AF system is the upcoming Sony a99 II. As that camera was not released at press time, we will have to reserve judgment, but on paper it challenges the 5D Mark IV and costs considerably less.
Video shooters will find the 5D Mark IV a mixed bag. For the wedding and event shooter looking to add a little bit of video for a client, the 4K functionality is more than enough to deliver excellent-looking video to happy customers.
For the Canon shooter with the 5D Mark III, things are a bit trickier; buying advice depends on your type of work. The focus on the 5D Mark IV is considerably faster and more adroit, but that won’t matter much to studio shooters or those capturing landscapes. If your budget allows for the 5D Mark IV or you can sell your Mark III and trade up, it’s an exceptional camera. However, if shooting with the 5D Mark III leaves you satisfied in terms of focus speed, processing time, ISO and dynamic range, the 5D Mark IV might not be a big enough jump to justify the expense. Again, if budget allows, it’s worth the upgrade.
In any case, the Canon 5D Mark IV is a solid, if un-revolutionary, update to one of the most respected camera lines in DSLR history. It has more than enough new features to justify its place in the pantheon of professional cameras and provides an excellent ratio of function-to-price relative to the Canon 1DX Mark II, from which it borrows many features. Hopefully Canon will give the series a complete model number upgrade in the future, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that the 5D Mark IV is a great addition to the professional photographer’s arsenal.