These will be my closing thoughts on the Canon 5DSR, first reviewed here. It turns out there won’t be a part two for a simple reason – I don’t see the point. My opinions that follow are going to appear initially conflicting and probably be misinterpreted by the fanboys, so I’m going to state this upfront: I really, really liked the camera. But in the end, it just isn’t for me. Allow me to explain why.
There’s a lot to like about the 5DSR, even relative to the competing Nikon flagship D810:
- A visible resolution advantage both on screen and in print, though admittedly only for very large sizes or Ultraprints
- Much better color out of the box, especially for foliage and landscapes. This was also very visible in print, with a significant advantage over the Nikon; I’d have to do significant compensation work on files with the D810, but the 5DSR’s files just looked correct and pleasing after a single initial camera profile. I have no explanation for this other than native tonal response at the highlight and shadow ends of the green channel isn’t linear; this is probably related to the non-ISO-invariance of the sensor.
- Preferable (to me) ergonomics and handling – the grip is perhaps the most comfortable I’ve held, and whilst I still get blisters with the D810 on my little finger second joint after extended use with heavy lenses or the grip because of the location of that one lower seam, I didn’t with the 5DSR
- Lenses not in the Nikon system at all – the 17TSE, 70-300/4-5.6 L, all of that vintage Contax Zeiss goodness that isn’t F-mountable because of flange distances. Stuff that has no equivalent like the 35/2.8 PC-Distagon and the 100-300/4-5.6 Vario-Sonnar.
- Custom shooting settings on the mode dial, easily accessible.
- Better AF acquisition and tracking – only one of my lenses required fine tuning, and even then it was by a 1/20 amount at one end. Oh, and you can tune both ends of the zoom separately – which is impossible on a Nikon.
- Better mirror lockup implementation. Choose the delay and trigger it with a cheap IR remote, or just hit the shutter once.
- Electronic front curtain by default in live view.
- A mirror/shutter mechanism with subjectively less mechanical vibration – or better damping, or both.
- The ability to move the magnified point quickly in live view, hit 50 or 100%, and return to centre with single button presses – again, not possible on the D810. That is slow and you either have return to centre or magnify, but not both.
- Preservation of the original file when running crop modes; only the crop selected is tagged but not permanently baked in. With the Nikons, you lose the rest of the file.
- A slightly larger and slightly clearer viewfinder.
- I personally thought the camera felt a bit more solid, and there was no popup flash to accidentally deploy and break.
But there were things that I didn’t get along with, too:
- Dynamic range is limited compared to the D810 – about 2 stops at base ISO, by my estimation. And that gap increases as you go up the sensitivity range.
- Metering in evaluative mode is unpredictable.
- At the pixel level, I’d stop at ISO 3200 with some NR afterwards – beyond that, it isn’t so much the noise but loss of acuity and color accuracy that become an issue. Files are larger but with no more perceived detail or clarity.
- Some button function combinations are just impossible: you cannot have AE lock on the shutter button in anything other than evaluative metering, for instance, and then spot metering point doesn’t follow your AF point. You have no choice but to dance a jig with your fingers over the back button.
- Battery life left a lot to be desired: I never saw more than 600 frames, and often more like 300. This is in comparison to 1,200+ under similar circumstances with the D810.
- Long lockup times in live view ‘BUSY’ became a familiar screen.
- That slightly larger and slightly clearer viewfinder was also not quite so snappy or easy to manually focus with.
- You can’t swap the front and rear dial functions either, but you get used to that fairly quickly.
By far my biggest headache with the camera was that it tended to be a ‘fair weather friend’: under ideal circumstances, on a tripod, or in very good light, with critical focus obtained with the very best lenses, the files are pretty incredible. But if any one of those stars fail to align, then you’re going to land up with something slightly soft-looking and just a tad disappointing: as though somebody slipped an AA filter back in the optical chain somewhere. Somehow, the jump from 36 to 50MP magnifies the visibility of a lot of things: operator shake and critical focus/focal plane being the main ones. It is both very rewarding and extremely brutal on those who are sloppy on technique or cheaper out on their support gear, perhaps the most unforgiving I’ve ever used.
I suspect contributing to the duality of results is the unpredictability of metering in evaluative mode, and the files not being very tolerant of underexposure; combined with the reduced dynamic range, this means your exposure has to be bang on all the time – it was a bit like shooting slide film. There is very little latitude for recovery, but at the same time, you don’t have to do very much work at all to the files if you get it right – the tones and colors somehow just look ‘right’.
My conundrum is that I already have a system that is capable of delivering excellent results under a wider range of circumstances. I give up something at the extremes of the performance envelope, but under those conditions I can probably stitch to close the gap. The rest of the time, I don’t see any clear advantage one way or another. Maintaining an additional system for vanishingly small returns – and carrying it on assignment or during travel – is another challenge entirely. It either calls for a significant financial commitment to field a complete Canon system (i.e. second body, full lens range) or a significant amount of weight and partial coverage of either system, neither of which is ideal.
I think it’s important I comment on my initial hypothesis when buying the camera – it would be effectively a body-only cost since I would be adapting lenses. In practice, whilst this works, it’s very clunky and means manual focus with live view on sturdy tripods all the time. It also means having one adaptor for each lens since thin adaptors in the field are not so easy to change quickly. The usual suspects proved to hold their own resolution-wise – the Zeiss Otuses, Zeiss 2/135 APO, and surprisingly, some of the older aforementioned Contax designs. The 2.8/35 is a superb lens that has a really beautiful rendering and conveniently, a 28mm equivalent FOV when shift-stitched vertically. The 2/28 Distagon shows significant CA, fringing and all sorts of optical gremlins until f8 – after which we hit diffraction limits because of the camera’s pixel pitch anyway. All in all, the Zacuto-F mount-Otus-5DSR setup was capable of some impressive results: but not so consistently. And let’s just say it’s rather large, and 100% live view also means finishing at least three batteries a day.
Since my assignments tend to be somewhat varied, I still needed run and gun versatility at least some of the time. I landed up buying a 24-70/4 IS L, 40/2.8 STM and 70-300L, and carrying these in addition to the manual focus lenses and a Nikon body for backup. The 40 STM was the surprise of the bunch, and very enjoyable to shoot with because of size and image quality. It made a great aerial lens, actually – the right focal length for a natural perspective, not so long that you run into shutter speed problems, and not something that would be so physically large as to be affected by wind buffeting. It’s also a steal at $149.
In total, I shot three assignments, one workshop and north of 10,000 frames with it. I would say that with the exception of trying to pull critical focus at f1.4 on off-centre moving subjects in low light handheld at the Hanoi Cinematic Masterclass – a tall order under any circumstances, much less with 50MP – I enjoyed the experience very much. I was initially going to do a comparison between the D810, E-M5II in high resolution mode, and 5DSR – I don’t think there’s a lot of point, because they all each have some fundamental weaknesses, and some strengths – what is ‘ideal’ depends very much on your own needs. The E-M5II has the most accurate color, but the poorest acuity, slowest capture time and worst dynamic range. The 5DSR has the highest resolution but visibly less distance is in critically sharp focus because the increased resolution also differentiates planes of critical focus more distinctly. The D810 has the most dynamic range, and slightly better pixel-level acuity than the 5DSR.
It is clear to me that neither Nikon nor Canon can claim to be decidedly superior at the moment, each with their own strengths and weaknesses – much like their equivalent lens lineups. Canon lacks Nikon’s new f1.8G primes, but Nikon lacks all of the special purpose stuff and some of the zooms – there is no 17 TSE, for starters. There’s no question that if I were a Canon shooter, I’d be very happy at the moment: you have a tool that’s miles ahead of anything else in the system, can hold its own against the competition most of the time, and can pull ahead if the conditions are right. If I shot only subjects under which I could satisfy those conditions – in a studio, or perhaps landscape or architecture – it would be very easy to justify a complete switch. Unfortunately, I don’t, and I tend to have multiple very different objectives within one assignment – and under those circumstances, I’m left with either a very heavy solution or one that doesn’t quite cover all the bases in the most optimum way. And with shrinking client budgets and increasingly militant airlines, I can only afford to keep and carry one system – I’ve already been forced once to buy another seat last minute at the airport at full price to avoid having to check in my equipment. Since my glass investment is already F mount, it is with great sadness, I have to bid the 5DSR goodbye. I’m missing it already. MT
Equipment in this post is available here from the site’s B&H and Amazon affiliates links – every bit helps!
Canon 5DSR B&H Amazon
Canon 24-70/4 L IS B&H Amazon
Canon 40/2.8 STM pancake B&H Amazon
Canon 70-300/4-5.6 L IS B&H Amazon
Nikon D810 B&H Amazon
Be inspired to take your photography further: Masterclass Chicago (27 Sep-2 Oct) and Masterclass Tokyo (9-14 Nov) now open for booking!
Ultraprints from this series are available on request here
Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!
Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved