Canon has a long tradition of producing innovative and groundbreaking DSLRs. In 2003, for example, the 6.3MP Canon 300D became the first consumer-grade DSLR to sell for under £1,000. Two years later the introduction of the original 12.5MP 5D signalled the arrival of the first ‘affordable’ full-frame DSLR.
The 5D was replaced by the 5D Mark II in the autumn of 2008, with the new model offering nearly double the resolution (21.1MP) a greatly increased ISO range and, for the first time on a full-frame DSLR, the ability to record Full HD video with an external microphone jack also offering stereo sound recording.
Needless to say the Mark II quickly became a firm favourite, not only with still photographers drawn by its fantastic image quality but also video enthusiasts (and indeed professional film and TV production companies) who were keen to exploit the creative opportunities provided by the Mark II’s class-leading (at the time) video abilities and Canon’s vast lens universe.
Fast forward nearly three and a half years, and we now have the successor to the 5D Mark II – the imaginatively named 5D Mark III. For the time being at least the latest model will sit alongside its predecessor, with prices on the Mark II now as low as £1,200 body-only. The Mark III, however, currently retails for £3,000, and given the high level of demand you can expect this launch price to stand firm for some time yet.
So then given that it costs twice as much, what major hardware upgrades does the Mark III enjoy over its predecessor? Well, for starters the latest model gets an all-new 22.3MP full-frame (36 x 24mm) CMOS sensor that shares the same gapless microlens technology as the flagship Canon 1D X, which allows for enhanced performance in low light. Effective resolution gets a boost too, albeit a fairly conservative one, up to a total of 22.3MP (compared to 21.1MP on the Mark II).
Another major upgrade the Mark III enjoys over its predecessor is its 14-bit DIGIC 5 image processor – the same engine that’s also used in the Canon 1D X. The only major difference between the two models (aside from the £2,300 price differential) is that the 1DX contains two processors while the 5D Mark III gets one. That’s still a lot of processing power, mind. Indeed, Canon claims that the optimised DIGIC 5 processor is 5x faster than the standard DIGIC 5 chip and over 17x faster than the DIGIC 4. Employing an 8-channel readout and 14-bit A/D conversion, the Mark III is able to shoot at a maximum 6fps – up from 3.9fps on the Mark II.
Sensitivity ranges from ISO 100 to 25,600 in standard mode, with ISO 50 to 102,400 available in expanded mode. In terms of high ISO performance, Canon claims that the Mark III offers a 2-stop advantage over the Mark II. In other words, ISO 1600 on the Mark III should produce the same image quality as ISO 400 on the Mark II. We’ll have more to say on the Mark III’s ISO performance later on, but for those looking for a quick spoiler we can reveal that its among the very best we’ve yet seen on a DSLR.
Another big specification upgrade is that the Mark III comes with a total of 61 AF points – as opposed to nine on the Mark II. Of these 41 are cross-type sensors, meaning they are equally as responsive regardless of whether the camera is being held in portrait or landscape orientation. The AF points are arranged in a cross shape (as opposed to a diamond formation) which is primarily concentrated in the central area of the viewfinder.
Exposure modes extend to the regular DSLR quartet of Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority, and Manual, alongside an Auto setting for fully automatic shooting and three user-defined Custom settings. Maximum output at full resolution in the default 3:2 aspect is 5,760 x 3,840 pixels, although there are of course options to reduce JPEG size to as little as 720 x 480 pixels should you be shooting purely for small use on the internet or suchlike. In addition, the Mark III can also be set to record lossless Raw files at one of three resolution settings – Large (5,760 x 3,840), Medium (3,960 x 2,640) or Small (2,880 x 1,920).
While the original 5D didn’t offer any video shooting capabilities the Mark II made history by becoming the first full-frame DSLR to offer 1080p Full HD video recording. Thanks to this (and also to the large number of premium-grade fast Canon lenses) the 5D Mark II has in recent years become the “go-to” model for serious DSLR video enthusiasts and professional-film production houses looking to shoot with a DSLR.
However, with Nikon now deliberately and aggressively targeting the DSLR video market with its full-frame D800, the 5D Mark III was always going to have to up its game to stay ahead. Thankfully, it appears to have done just this. The new model retains the same 1080/24p and 25p Full HD capabilities of its predecessor but also offers 720/50p HD recording, with a further choice of either intra-frame or inter-frame compression.
Continuous AF, stereo sound and external microphone jack are all present and correct and, in addition, the Mark III also gets an external headphone jack so that audio can be monitored in real-time. The Mark III also offers full manual control over audio levels with the ability to make the main control wheel on the back of the camera touch sensitive for silent operation while recording.
Shooting full-resolution JPEGs you can expect individual images to measure around 6-10MB in size, depending on the complexity of the scene being photographed, while RAW files come out at 63.3MB. Storage isn’t a problem with the Mark III sporting dual SDHC/XC and UDMA compatible CF card slots. It’s possible to use one as an overflow for the other, to use one for stills and the other for video or even to record to both cards simultaneously.