Digital classic: Robin reviews the original Canon 5D in 2018

The idea of shooting with a Canon 5D (from 2005) has been on my mind – and I wanted to answer the question “what if I started out with a Canon 5D instead of an Olympus Four Thirds system?”. Larger image sensors provide greater latitude in high ISO shooting and dynamic range, but a camera and its user experience cannot be judged on the spec sheet alone. Having a chance to extensively test a full frame camera, even an obsolete model gave me the opportunity to better understand the advantages and shortcomings of different systems. Special thanks to Nurul Munira Rohaizan for loaning me her Canon 5D.

Before we dive in, let me be clear that this article is not meant to be a full frame vs cropped sensor argument. Some comparisons will be made between using the Canon 5D versus Four Thirds/Micro Four Thirds system but in the context of practical shooting differences. Lets keep the discussion pleasant and not stray too far into an endless debate. I am sure many readers have wondered what my thoughts on full frame cameras are? Therefore, I am answering those questions here from my own personal standpoint. At the end of the day, I believe that we choose the tool that works best for our own shooting needs.

Lets get the obvious question, “why the Canon 5D?” out of the way. I wanted to go back to the beginning of DSLR revolution and my choices were the Canon 5D or Nikon D700. The Canon 5D was launched in 2005 (3 years prior to the Nikon D700 in 2008) and was arguably a game-changer for the Digital SLR movement. Instead of having the monstrous bulk of the flagship Canon 1D series at a stratospheric price point, the Canon 5D has a significantly smaller form and was targeted towards general consumers. Though the pricing for the 5D during launch was not budget friendly, it was affordable for serious hobbyists who hoped to get the benefits of a full frame sensor without the high end features (burst speed, high buffer, superior AF, etc) of the professional grade 1D series.

The Canon 5D loaned to me was in near mint condition. I was equipped with the pancake 40mm F2.8 STM lens, which was just nice for general shooting purposes. I did not have anything specific to accomplish while using the Canon 5D so I brought it around for my usual street shooting rounds.

The first thing that I loved about the 5D was the ergonomics. The size of the grip was just right, and it was comfortable to hand-hold for long durations. I cannot speak for larger and heavier lenses, but the pancake lens weighs almost nothing, so weight was not an issue. Everything was within easy reach and I could almost operate the camera without looking at where the buttons or dials were positioned. I think this is an art in camera making that is lost in many modern camera manufacturers. I just do not see how having so many mechanical dials and switches at odd places all over (Fujifilm, I am looking at you) can help in efficient and practical camera operation. Why would you put a dial on top of another dial?

While I cannot comment on the general autofocus performance (since I was only using one lens), I was actually pleased with the overall responsiveness of the camera. There were many quick moments on the street that I managed to nail. Under favorable lighting the Canon 5D performed superbly. I can honestly say that I am more confident shooting with this 13 years old dinosaur on brightly lit Malaysian streets than some newer cameras. You point, click and get the shot.

I found almost no issues using the Canon 5D on the streets. The autofocus was reliable, metering worked well and the white balance generated beautiful skin tones. I can see why Canon users speak highly of the warm Canon colors. Dynamic range was excellent at low ISO, and the highlights and shadows were highly recoverable considering an outdated image sensor. The pancake lens performed admirably, producing sharp images with plenty of contrast. Of course if you pixel peep, there are issues like soft corners, chromatic aberrations and distortions but these issues were not severe and can be easily repaired in post-processing.

The huge advantage of using a full frame 35mm over other cropped sensor variants is the shallow depth of field rendering. Even at F2.8 on a wide angle 40mm, I can render sufficient blur in the background to isolate my subjects. For me, the extra shallow DOF was both a blessing and a curse. While the razor thin depth of field may works in some situations, it was the complete opposite when I needed more of the frame in focus. When I was shooting food, I constantly struggled to achieve sufficient depth of field. I needed to stop down to F8 or beyond but that also invited another problem, the camera can no longer be handheld due to the slow shutter speed. I acknowledge that using a tripod would probably solve this but I was in a fine dining French restaurant and setting up a gigantic tripod just for casual shots was not really something I wanted my friends or the folks at the restaurant to remember me by.

Some may suggest raising the ISO to enable faster shutter speeds to compensate for narrow apertures. With the Canon 5D, I was at ISO800, shooting at F5.6 which was barely enough to get half the plate of Beef Bourguignon in focus and already struggling with a dangerously low 1/30th shutter speed. The good news is, the Canon 5D does produce clean ISO1600 images, but obviously at the expense of detail, contrast and color tonality. Typically I could get away with ISO200, F2.8 at 1/15th on an old Olympus Four Thirds DSLR E-510 (having in body image stabilization) and get good results. Please do not get me wrong, I acknowledge that the Canon 5D full frame was indeed superior when it comes to resolution, dynamic range and high ISO shooting when shooting circumstances are ideal. My point here is that, in practical shooting, the combination of having more depth of field and a good image stabilization system actually make a world of difference.

I do have several other complaints but these may not be valid 13 years ago, when this camera was launched. We have progressed quite far in terms of imaging technology. I was not happy with the low resolution LCD screen which was useless for reviewing critical focus accuracy after each shot. I guess this was a common issue for most cameras back then, many using much smaller LCD screens than the Canon 5D did. It has also been too long since I last used a camera without any sort of image stabilization. I have been too comfortable working with dangerously slow shutter speeds and not worrying about camera shake. Since there was no live view in the original 5D, and obviously no flip/tilt screen, I also had to bend and contort my body into really weird positions more often than I’d have liked (I haven’t gotten younger in the last 13 years either). All these minor issues are solved in modern DSLR or Mirrorless cameras and are simply a result of the limits of that time period.

One extremely troubling issue that I faced was the the inability to lock accurate focus under uneven lighting. I was shooting a local music performance in a stage setting. The main performer was standing slightly behind the sweetspot of the stage light, hence she was unlit in comparison to other musicians on stage. The guitarist was much better lit, and because of this huge contrast difference, the camera always locked focus on the guitarist at the back. This ruined 75% of my shots and the low resolution LCD screen was useless for checking focus. Using manual focus was not an option since the singer moved around frequently. I don’t remember having such issues using any other camera from 2003 or later.

Also and this is not surprising, dynamic range after ISO400 was nothing to write home about. Even at ISO800, I have had easy blown out highlights on the white shirts of both the singer and the guitarist. I shot everything in RAW and intentionally underexposed by 2 stops, but the highlights were not recoverable. I am sure the 5D Mark II and Nikon D700 could do much better as they were a subsequent generation.

I have had such an educational experience with my brief encounter with the Canon 5D original. I acknowledge that the current full frame camera options like the Nikon D850 and Sony A7r Mark III are pushing many shooting envelopes and could be a better reference of what a full frame camera can truly do. But photography is not about using the latest, best, fastest and most powerful camera. To me photography is a very personal undertaking and there really is no right or wrong choice – it all comes down to your own shooting style and approach.

I can see now what I have been missing out from not using a full frame camera when I started. At the same time, I would not wish for anything to change either. I am perfectly happy dealing with the restrictions and struggles of using a smaller sensor Four Thirds system. I believe having a full frame may be advantageous in some situations but it will not make that much of a difference in pushing me to be a better photographer.

I did have so much fun shooting with the Canon 5D that I almost extended my loan. Nonetheless, I realized that whatever tools I use now are more than sufficient to achieve my own needs. I should remind myself to be more confident with what I have and not go through the long list of “What If”s.

Image by Jo Quah

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Comments

  1. You missed all the great stuff that made the Canon 5D the greatest camera of its time, and why it was a game changer:
    – Image Stabilizing works great when attached to Lenses that have them. Canon was famous for having them, you missed that.
    – Canon 5D, had the Low setting ISO 50, which was huge back then, and still huge today.
    – It had a pixel pitch of 8.2, allowing for tons of light to be captured, and avoiding Airy Disc effect, which ultimately contributed to the fact that 5D continued to be sharper than its successors, the Mark II & III, particularly due to the aging lenses from the film era, forcing them to release new lenses over the following decade to make up for that. Amatures so happy with the added resolution simply blamed the lens low performance on the Mark II & III.
    – No one ever blamed the 5D for being a 12bit sensor compared to it successors whom presumably had 14bit (not quite) as we found out years later.
    – Never took 5D off base ISO. Didn’t need to. People today want the camera to make them good photographers!
    Oh BTW, my 5D replaced one of my favorite cameras to date, the Olympus EVolt E-300 FourThirds camera. So I am able to tell you, with conviction, they are 2 quite different styles and experiences. I still have and use both.

    On my website today, you can not tell my Canon 5D landscape & Architectural from those taken with my the Hasselblad H5D.

  2. Guenter Rohde L. says:

    Robin< I had sent a PM to your hamish…/gmail acct (Aug 27) and have not received a reply to my left email. Can you pls check and adv/inform about questions placed on the D5….anticipated thanks, Guenter

    • I don\t think I have received anything from you, but are there any private or sensitive questions? If not, feel free to ask here for convenience. Maybe the spam filters in the email work in some funny ways.

      • Guenter Rohde L. says:

        Thks for your reply. in a nutshell: Very Interesting report with great color output. I wonder how you dealt with “Picture Style” settings in this camera prior shooting: any particular type chosen/tweaked from default settings available for your different scenes to cover? And: You are using Capture One for post, right? (for other questions kindly advise whether I can use your hamish…/gmail email – in this case pls adjust filter accdly) Many thanks + best regards,
        Guenter

        • I did not pay attention to the picture style because I shot everything in RAW and post-processed with Capture One pro. If you find my recent post I shared my post-processing workflow and techniques, I used the same method.

  3. I own and use a 5D still today. I bought it in 2008, just two weeks before the 5D Mk II was announced. (So THAT’S why it was on sale!) The camera produces excellent photos to this day, but I do have a couple of issues with it. The main issue being the focusing. If you don’t use the center focus point, you’re really rolling the dice. It basically has one usable focus point. The second major problem is the lack of micro-focus-adjustment. I have an 85mm f/1.8 which often front-focuses. If I had the ability to do a little adjustment, I think I could solve the problem. It is a beautiful lens when it hits focus. I will have to wait until I am ready to replace my 5D to resolve this problem.

    Overall, in spite of the niggles, I have been very successful with the camera. It is basically a digital Elan 7, which was my previous camera, and so I was completely comfortable with it from the very beginning. It’s been fantastic at recording my families travels, triumphs and challenges. I am completely satisfied with my purchase, and I should be, since I’ve kept it for so many years.

    The 5D was certainly a revolution when it arrived on the scene. It made digital photography more practical, with at least equal quality to film photography, and it did so at a fairly reasonable price–in a reasonably sized package. I wanted one from the moment it was announced. For me it was a revolution: it granted me the ability to experiment, learn, and hone my techniques in a way that film had never allowed. I was able to truly enjoy photography without constraint. For that, I am truly grateful.

    • Robin Wong says:

      You are right about the center focusing point, I have used that, and that only at all times, using center focus lock and recompose method for all my shooting with the 5D. Thankfully I was using the 40mm pancake at F2.8, and it does seem to nail focus quite accurately, hence no issue with back/front focusing as you had with the 85mm. Glad that you have found the 5D useful, and indeed, it was a revolution!

  4. Good review and great images (as always). While I mostly use a EM-5 (mark I), I still own and use a Canon 5D (mark I). While I think your comments on image quality, high ISO performance and DR are spot on, my 12 year experience with the Camera’s AF performance is somewhat different. I typically use the Canon over the Olympus when shooting with studio flash where the subject is illuminated by relatively low powered modeling lights. In this environment I find the optical VF easier to use, and AF much more reliable than the EM-5, With a Canon 5D in low light, you need to use center AF sensor only since its the only one that is a cross-type focusing point.

    • Robin Wong says:

      I find it odd that you are having issues with the E-M5 Mark II, but I was not there in your situation so I cannot make any conclusive remarks. Nonetheless, even in the dimmest of light levels, I have had great successes with OM-D cameras. The 5D gave me so many misses I found it quite unusable.

  5. I read and looked at the photos Robin, when you first published this article. I noted something then got busy and today looked again to confirm my opinion – the photos are fine but after seeing years of your work and your style and MFT, I can clearly see the difference in this article. You see, your photos have always been the total package – the portrait of the person as much as the environment – they were believable with a high technical quality. In comparison, with the photos here, that focus or conveyed intent is different. The DOF is shallower, blurring out the background (and thus the believability). The incidental foreground, hands, ice cream cones, etc.. are blurred because of the shallower DOF. If the photo still of high technical quality? Yes. Does it portray the reality? No, I think the reality is less.

    As you know, I also have a Sony A7 from mid last year because I wanted to use my film lenses in their old feel and look. So I am not against full frame. I just think it changes the message to the viewer.

    Always nice to see your work and love your exploration and growth

    • Robin Wong says:

      I think in order to achieve the similar Micro Four Thirds look, I need to stop down the aperture to F3.5, or slightly more. Shooting at wide open F2.8 at 40mm for such a close up portrait is not something I usually do, not especially with a wide angle lens. I’d prefer a longer focal length for a more proportionate and flattering look. There is just something unnatural with very wide angle combined with excessive background blurring, I guess our eyes are not trained to see things that way.

  6. Oh my goodness, what a great review! I am for sure going to look into this now! Thanks for posting 🙂

  7. I went down the Sony route to having a small full frame kit to accompany my Four Thirds setup. That said, I see a 5D or D700 in the window of my local camera dealer, from time to time. They’re very reasonably priced these days (and the Canon would, of course, work well with Canon lenses I’ve adapted to my Sony).

    • Robin Wong says:

      I’d snag one and use it for daily bashing that takes the wear and tear! I am sure the 5D or D700 can perform wonders!

  8. Enjoyable article Robin, as usual. I upgrade from a crop sensor Canon DSLR to a 5D and have since graduated to a 5Dmk2. The only reason I upgraded was because of the LCD issue you mentioned – the screen is almost completely unusable. The dusty sensor was also a frequent irritant. Aside from this, it was perfect for what I wanted – a reliable, hard-wearing full frame camera on a budget.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks Dan! Yes, I was frustrated at the LCD at all times but I constantly reminded myself this was a 2005 camera.

  9. Michiel953 says:

    Not a lot wrong here Robin! Makes me wonder why I ever sold my D700, 5 yeras ago…

    • You should not have sold your D700. Get another ! They are cheap now and, to be honest, still fantastic.

      • Michiel953 says:

        I migrated from the D700 to the 800, 800E, 810 and now the 850… Not really worth it to go back in time, but that D700’s value is sure holding up fine!

  10. Jeffrey McPheeters says:

    Of all the Canon DSLRs I shot previous to switching to Olympus in 2012, the original 5D is the only one I still get nostalgic for, especially when I look back at some special portraits and travel scenes I acquired with it over nearly five years of use along with three 1D bodies (mk2, 2n, and 3). Nice to see this article. I don’t miss the constant cleaning of dust from the Image DustMagnet (I mean Sensor) but there were very few complaints to be made with that body especially when mated to some L-glass and it worked in most weather conditions I took it through even though it wasn’t officially a weather sealed camera. I still miss the Canon ‘wheel’ on the back of their DSLR XXD and XD systems.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Olympus did have the similar “wheel” in some of their Micro Four Thirds cameras (earlier PEN series) and I so wish they have it on their newer OM-D! So easy to just turn the wheel around for adjustments or going through image previews!

  11. GD Morris says:

    Your photos are lovely with great color and detail (on my computer screen). You really got 110% out of the that Canon 5D and the 40mm Pancake. Of the Canon camera bodies I’ve owned since 2003, I’d pick the 5DM2 as my favorite. Couple the 5DM2 with the 40mm Pancake and you will notice the improvement over the original 5D you’ve just tried out.

    • Robin Wong says:

      I am sure the 5D Mark II is a great improvement, it was also the first few DSLR that has solid video performance, and instrumental in turning the perspective on DSLR not just for stills but also capable film making tool!

  12. I often suppose that, collectively, our expectations increase as technology improves over time. In other words, we become accustomed to images with higher and higher IQ and therefore we become more demanding. This rationale would suggest that images produced with older tech would, naturally, look less and less pleasing.
    From this perspective, the images you’ve displayed here really do seem surprisingly nice. And I can image the fun of spending some time experimenting with it. Nice.

    • Robin Wong says:

      I think 12MP is still plentiful for even today (for views on full HD and 4K screens) and under favorable light, the 5D just does wonders. Yes newer cameras get better, but mostly on the operational side of things. Image quality did improve but at lower ISO region? Not by that far of a margin. I would still gladly work with the 5D at lower ISO ranges.

      • I just did a personal shoot with D810 and allowed auto-ISO to take those captures up to higher ISO that disappointed. I know that I should have managed it better and upon review felt virtually the whole shoot should go in the dust bin. (Glad it wasn’t a paid engagement.) At almost the same time you shared some lovely images from the 5D! 🙂 Granted the light was rather different, but I’m getting a sense of irony.

  13. I have gone down a similar path. I am shooting a D700 these days with some Nikon primes and an old 70-210 F4/5.6 D.

    The D700 is a better camera than the 5D. Quite a lot better. In fact, it gives nothing away really to even much more modern cameras. I greatly prefer it to the D610 – maybe even the D750. The AF is excellent and the files are lovely and rich.

    • Robin Wong says:

      D700 is definitely better, but they have 3 years to improve and learn from Canon. D700 was made in response to Canon’s success in the full frame DSLR. 3 years is a lot of time to reverse engineer, study and develop a product.

  14. I shoot on the regular with my 5D and 40mm pancake. It’s my favorite pairing. I have not been fortunate enough to be ablr to upgrade my camera because of $$$, but I do regular portrait shoots with this gear. I’ve never had a customer disappointed. In addition to my pancake, I use a 50mm. Between the 2 I’ve caught so many amazing photos. I started with a Canon Rebel 35mm, and the 5D has by far been my most favorite as far as similarities.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Under favorable light the 5D shines! And I would have loved to test it out with a 50mm, but it was not available at the time of shooting.

  15. Switching from my wonderful 5D to MFT some years ago was definitely not based on picture quality.

    And yes, I really can recommend using a 50mm lens on it.

  16. Terry Manning says:

    You are SO right about the overuse of dials. Maybe it was because I started out using point-and-shoot film cameras and advanced to the Canonet 28 (a fancy point and shoot, honestly) and Olympus Stylus Epic before going digital, but I don’t like having a half-dozen dials stacked atop each other. It’s the reason I prefer the X-E series from Fuji over their other cameras and why I briefly considered buying a Leica. Point, shoot, done. P.S. I enjoyed your photos with the Canon 5D, but you reviewers and your positive comments are making them hard to find LOL

    • Robin Wong says:

      X-E series of Fuji, I have not had close encounters with them yet. Less dials and switches you say? Might be interesting. Hope their handling is good too. Simplicity is the key to good ergonomics and camera operation efficiency, the less steps and easier to reach placements of everything are crucial to me.

  17. Wow … I am a loyal m43 shooter but I have to say that this 13 year old camera produced shots on par with my gear…utterly fascinating really. Whodathunkit 😉

  18. Bill Walter says:

    I had the 5D and it took many fine pictures for me. Yes, the LCD is horrible, but I was always pleased with the final results. One of the best qualities of the 5D is that the sensor had a very weak AA filter. This resulted in crisp photos that needed very little in the way of sharpening. I think the 5D would make a great starter FF camera for a young person getting into photography.

  19. Ok, this are Portraits. So here i see the clarity and texture of Fullframe, combined with your style of photography. This Pictures, especially the Portraits, sing.
    For me, a camera can’t have enough dials and switches. It will be like riding a bike. In a short time you don’t think how to balance and use it, you just do. Need not look at the camera while changing switches and setting. That’s intuitive for me so i can concentrate on the subject rather than on the camera.
    But everybody has its own experience with controls, and that is what make the world look colorful.

    • Robin Wong says:

      I guess it is personal preference in this matter. I prefer logical, practical and efficient dials and buttons placement, easy to reach within the few fingers on the right operating hand. No point having weird positions of dials and switches all over the body needing you to take the camera away from your eyes and find them. I sure can remember 2 dials (the front and back) and maybe 2-3 more shortcut customizable buttons but not more than that. And I certainly do not like to use my left hand or fingers. they should rest on the lens for zooming or manual focusing when needed.

  20. This Canon is really interesting, just some time ago I planned its purchase, so out of curiosity, I am waiting for some promotion and I will certainly make it for myself, if it does not work, I will sell it again 🙂

    • Robin Wong says:

      Sometimes it is fun to revisit some older cameras of the past. In my case, I did not have the luxury to get one back then, so reliving a memory that I never had was quite an interesting one.

  21. it is interesting that whenever some manufacturer brings out a new camera body these days, so many jump on the ‘game-changer’ band wagon. The 5d is what an actual game changer looks like.

    • Robin Wong says:

      It was indeed a revolution! If I can find a cheap used good condition unit now, I do not mind snagging one and just slap a 50mm lens on it.

    • Jeffrey McPheeters says:

      Indeed. For me the three ‘game changers’ in my years of photography were the original OM-1 in 1973, the Canon 5D in 2005, and the Olympus OM-D E-M5 in 2012. I’m fairly certain there are other cameras that were game changers during those decades but they just didn’t fall within my experience.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Recently, a couple of bloggers that I follow have featured worthwhile retro digital cameras. Here in Austin, Kirk Tuck has nice things to say about his Nikon D700. Over in Asia, Robin Wong did a review of the original Canon 5D. […]

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