I finally dipped deep into the piggy bank to upgrade my digital SLR camera from my trusted steed, a relatively old Canon D60, to a brand-spankin’ new Canon 5D. It’s difficult to compare these two cameras since 1) there have been several generations of Canon DSLRs between my two versions, 2) the D60 is an “enthusiast” camera – targeted at amateur photographers – whose successor is the current 30D and the 5D is a “pro-sumer” camera targeted at high-end amateurs and professionals looking for a smaller, lighter body, and 3) the 5D is a 12.8 megapixel camera with a full-frame sensor (more on this in a minute) and the D60 is a 6MP camera with a 1.6X focal length multiplier. While these factors make a comparison inexact, at best, I’ll give it my best shot . . .
First, I had read that one drawback to the 5D over its DLSR siblings was that it was bigger and heavier – even compared to its newer siblings. Since I ordered the camera sight unseen on the web, I was concerned about this – you can’t take good shots if you don’t have the camera with you, and you won’t have it with you if it’s too unwieldy (I’m an amateur photographer, not a pro – convenience is an important factor). As I pulled the camera from its box, I was surprised that it didn’t seem larger or heavier than the D60 in any way. When I put the two side-by-side, I could tell there was a difference, but by itself, I can’t really tell.
As with all gadgets, digital camera technology advances quickly. The 5D includes Canon’s Digic II image processor which is WAY better than it’s predecessor. The camera boots up quickly and takes shots very fast (3fps with a buffer that can handle 60 high-res JPEG or 17 RAW frames before having to write data to the compact flash card). This is not as fast as some of the pro models, but is much faster than the D60 and is plenty fast even for photographing action shots. Faster overall operation includes faster focusing, too. It used to be that Canon digitals were known as slow-focusing cameras. This just isn’t true any longer. The camera locks up and shoots very quickly, even in low-light situations.
Speaking of low-light situations, one of the reasons I had hesitated in buying the 5D was its lack of an on-board flash. Those of you have tried to take quality pictures with the small flash on most cameras know that the little flash is frequently way too wimpy for long shots and much too hot and close to the lens for closeups. So it’s impractical anyway, right? Well, it might be a lame excuse for not buying a camera like this, but I like the convenience of that little flash. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found that the little flash (usually as a fill flash) made the difference between a good picture and a poor one. The jury remains out on this factor. I think I’ll miss having the little flash, but not enough to keep me from enjoying all the other advantages of this camera.
OK, enough of the minor stuff. The big thing this camera brings to the photographer is a full-frame sensor. What this means is that sensor is the same size, roughly, as a 35mm film frame (the actual sensor size is 36X24mm). Ultimately, this means two things: 1) that all your lenses will produce the exact same field of view (FOV) as a 35mm film camera – this is what they were designed for and, 2) the larger image sensor makes more room for pixel locations without cramming them closer together (see my post, Compact Digital Cameras – ISO, Focal Length, Resolution and Disappointment for more information on this).
With most digital cameras, the sensor is smaller than 35mm. So, as the image gets mapped to the smaller sensor through the lens, it is cropped, showing less of the image than was intended when the lens was matched to 35mm film. In the case of the 5D, the resulting image is 1.6 times larger than the image as shot with the D60. In physical terms, this means that to get the same shot, similarly framed with each camera, the photographer would have to move 1.6X further away from the subject with the D60 than he/she would with the 5D.
This can be seen in the images below. Both of these shots were taken with the same lens (17–24mm f2.8 zoom set at its shortest focal length) from the same position. The image from the 5D looks substantially wider than the image from the D60 as a result of the larger sensor.
Focal Length 17mm
Focal Length 17mm
I’ve often looked at this focal length multiplier as an advantage. My 200mm lens became a 320mm lens, allowing me to shoot further away. The downside is pretty tough, though. It’s almost impossible to shoot close up. Even with my widest angle lens I couldn’t get much of a FOV. The 1.6 multiplier made my widest angle lens (17mm) an equivalent of a 27mm lens. In the end, I find that having the FOV as I expect is much more comforting and helps me frame better shots. Of course, I’m going to have to use my extenders more now to increase the focal length of my lenses for those shots from far away.
Another, not so positive, effect of the bigger image sensor is that it requires better lenses to take good looking pictures – especially at wide angles. Of course, this is no different than it was for 35mm film. The reason for this is simply that the larger sensor can see more, including the light coming from the edges of the lens and shutter. By its very nature, light will bend around edges, distorting the images being projected on the sensor. This means that this distortion is also captured by the edges of the sensor.
This can be seen in the 5D image, above. Notice how the corners show a sort of zoomed effect with the image appearing squeezed into the corners and projected to the middle of the picture. This lens distortion happens only with wide angle lenses, but is clearly noticeable at even 17mm. Using the same zoom lens at even 20mm virtually eliminates this distortion. I’ve also read that vignetting (dark areas in the corners of the image) is a problem with wide angle lenses at small aperture settings. I have yet to see this, but I’m on the lookout for it.
All of this sounds terribly negative. I don’t mean it this way. While I was surprised about the lens distortion at wide angle settings, I expect a fish-eye effect at such settings. I can easily crop it out or fix the perspective in Photoshop (CS2 makes this very easy, well . . . as easy as anything else in Photoshop). Even with cropping, I still get a much larger FOV than I would with a smaller sensor.
Pixel count is often used to compare digital cameras. For the most part, this is only one of many factors that should be used when making this comparison. Even a 6MP camera can take high resolution images worthy of a 8.5X10” print. Think about it. A 6MP image (usually around 3,000X2,000 pixels) can generate a 10X6.7” print at 300dpi. At 250dpi, still a more than reasonable printing resolution, the same image can produce a 12X8” print. What this means is that a current 6–8MP camera is all you need for high resolution large prints.
What these numbers don’t factor in is that in today’s digital workflow, one often needs or wants to crop their image. The examples above all require that the full image as shot be used in the print to get a high enough resolution to make the print look good. If it is cropped, there will not be enough pixels left to get the needed resolution for relatively large prints. The 5D’s 12.8MP resolution (this higher resolution is not unique to the 5D, of course) gives you plenty of room for cropping an image and still getting the high resolution needed for the print. In fact, there’s plenty there to do high-res prints that are even much larger. Since I tend to work more on my photos on the computer than through the lens of the camera, this is great for me. I can edit away a lot of the image without having to consider what resolution I’m going to print at.
Of course, the 5D introduces a bunch of other small but important improvements, too, that make the camera easier to access and more fun to use. These include more shooting mode information always visible on the LCD on top of the camera; being able to change the ISO setting without hunting through menus; a bigger display on the back of the camera to view pix, menus and picture information; 9 auto-focus points plus a bunch of “hidden” ones; simultaneous RAW + JPEG image capture; sRGB and Adobe 1998 profiles; etc. For more info, check out the great review at dpreview.com.
I like this camera a lot. The full-frame sensor is a big deal and I’m enjoying using my lenses as I think they should be used. I also really like the higher resolution. if I were a better photographer, I might not need it as much, but since I’m a Photoshop junkie whose not willing to give up his fix just yet, the extra pixels are my pal. If you’re in the market for an upgrade or you’re thinking of making the leap from a consumer-oriented camera to a pro-sumer or professional camera, I’d highly recommend it.