Review: The Canon 5DSR, part I – solo

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This is both the first extended review I’ve done in some time, and the first one of a Canon product. Regular readers will know that I only review things that are interesting, and to be interesting, they have to expand the envelope somehow. I am curious as to whether the 5DSR will do this –
I sold my 645Z a few months back because I could not justify ow ning a second system against the need for a larger home for my family; but I won’t deny that I missed its resolution and print flexibility, especially for making larger Ultraprints.

I come to this review as primarily a Nikon D810 shooter. I make no secret of the fact that I have not that much experience with Canon other than a serious evaluation period in 2007 where I decided if I should switch (pre D3); I didn’t because local support at the time left a lot to be desired. However, I also come to this review with an open mind: I’ve tried many other systems previously to expand my toolkit including Leica M, Pentax 645, Hasselblad V and M4/3. And I can guarantee you that I have no self-interest either way, since these experiments have come out of my own pocket. The 5DSR was also purchased at retail and is NOT a loaner. I don’t care what the name plate on my camera says: I care only that it lets me make the images I want to make and doesn’t get in the way, and my clients are the same. If anything, I am biased towards image quality. That said, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before some forum keyboard warrior ‘expert’ asserts I’m now on the Canon payroll.

Note: I will present few full-size samples because I simply don’t have the bandwidth, nor do I trust that they won’t be reused without permission – it’s happened before. Given the limitations of web JPEGs, please go according to what I say and not what you see. Any perceived oversharpening is thanks to Flickr’s overzealous resizing algorithms and not blindness on my part. Read on if you have an open mind. Finally, a special thank you must go to my last client for allowing me to share some of the images from that assignment at the Crawick Multiverse and Garden of Cosmic Speculation. I literally collected the camera a few hours before heading to the airport and this was the first time I’d shot with it properly – no pressure…

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Understanding AF and MF: focusing aids tested

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Right after the question of ‘what X should I buy?’ comes ‘how do you manually focus your lenses?’ in popularity. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to dismiss everything under the sufficiency banner; contrary to the trends in image quality, we’ve gone the opposite direction away from sufficiency. There used to be a time when viewfinders were actually very good for acquiring focus manually; there was no choice because there was simply no other way to focus, either. That required a few things: firstly, a focusing screen with adequate coarseness (sometimes also referred to as ‘snap’); the same distance between flange and focusing screen and flange and imaging plane; adequate magnification, and fast lenses – to compensate for the coarseness of the focusing screen making it somewhat dark. Looking through the viewfinder of an F2 or a Hasselblad is a revelation compared to the drinking straws of modern finders. It seems we barely have the latter these days. So what can we do?

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The demise of the DSLR

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Five years ago, while I was writing for a local photo magazine, I was mostly in charge of the ‘big’ cameras – DSLRs and the like. There was no mirrorless category, with the exception of Leica; compacts meant serious image quality or lens quality compromises, and every serious photographer was typically also on first name terms with their chiropractor. You could still get film with relative ease, and better still, develop it. Not long ago, my desk had three cameras for review/ testing on it (the Olympus E-P5, Leica X Vario and Sigma DP3M – none of them were DSLRs. I now routinely travel without one; in fact, most of the time I do a lot of personal photography with compacts. And pretty much the only time my D800E comes out is when I’ve got a commercial job to shoot.

How things change.

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Thoughts on system choices, part two

In part 1, we dealt with SLR systems. Today, we’ll look at what will probably be a secondary system for most serious photographers, or as primary system for less serious ones.

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On paper, the system makes sense for consumers – it definitely doesn’t have the image quality required for commercial work – however, Nikon shot themselves in the foot twice: firstly with the obscene pricing, then by dropping it to laughable levels. And then they dropped an anvil on the same foot by crippling it with a whole slew of slow consumer zooms. I think it would have had a much stronger response with a series of fast pancake primes – two isn’t enough – because the sensor itself is actually quite good, and the camera’s AF performance is unparalleled in the mirrorless world, and rivals that of DSLRs. I can’t recommend this system at the original asking price, but at the last closeout prices of $350 or so, it’s a very interesting option against a premium point and shoot – especially given the larger sensor, built in EVF and interchangeable lenses. But I just can’t recommend it otherwise, unless you want to put your F mount glass on it via adaptor and use it for birding (then, it makes sense: 300/2.8 turning into an 810/2.8 with AF and VR, anybody?) It’s surprising how a company that makes DSLRs that are so ergonomically and functionally right can make both compacts and mirrorless cameras that are so bad.

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Thoughts on system choices, part one

Not so long ago, there used to be only two real choices for the amateur or beginning pro – I’m going to exclude the high end medium format systems and specialized large format systems because if you need that, you generally already know it – Nikon and Canon, Nikon and Canon, and that was about it. The last year or so has seen both smaller systems breach the limits of sufficiency, and larger systems possibly become overkill for most applications. From the general chatter online, in the comments and in my inbox, it seems that a lot of people are in the process of rethinking their gear: lighter and smaller is a definite trend. There’s a lot less thought given to switching than previously; the image quality differential these days is pretty much nil at the low to mid levels, and with the exception of the D800E, also true at the high end.

The confusion now comes from the fact that mirrorless is not only disruptive, it’s mature, alluring and possibly also cheaper – but more importantly, the promise of small and easy seems to have put the fun back into photography for a lot of people. Perhaps it’s because of the weight facilitating portability (and thus having the camera with you all the time), but I think it’s actually because psychologically, the smaller cameras aren’t seen as being quite so serious – thus encouraging experimentation and perhaps unexpected, but welcome, results.
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10X10: 100 ways to improve your photography: DSLR tips

Let’s talk DSLR: pretty much everybody’s got one, how do we get the most out of it?

Disclaimer: I’m assuming you know the basics already, but want to get serious.

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10: Control your view. Use the viewfinder when you can; there’s less lag, you can brace the camera against your face to increase stability, the dynamic range and resolution are higher, it’s a more direct connection to your subject and it saves power to boot. But why not use live view if you’ve got it, especially coupled with a swiveling screen? For critical focus, odd angles, and video, it’s actually pretty handy. Though I personally avoid it like the plague unless i have no choice.

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The big brass band. Not strictly an SLR shot, but live view did help me to get this angle without sticking my face on the floor. Leica X1

9: Shutter button technique matters. You’d be surprised how many people just jab the button and wonder why the camera isn’t responding. Firstly, don’t jab. Roll your finger gently to reduce camera shake. Secondly, prefocus; the shutter button has two stages – the first activating autofocus, the second, shutter release. If you have focus already going, then your lag is going to be much, much shorter than if the camera has to do all the work when you press the button – even on the fastest cameras. Finally, you’d be surprised how many people use the horizontal release in portrait orientation even if they have a vertical one – don’t. It’s less stable, and frankly you just look silly.

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Night party. It looks bright, but the EXIF will tell you otherwise. I needed every single trick in the book to get this shot: stratospheric ISOs, low shutter speeds, and a fast f1.4 lens wide open. Nikon D700, 24/1.4.

8: Turn the in-camera sharpening and contrast up to maximum. What? Why? There’ll be haloes! I can hear the cries of incomprehension and derision already. First caveat: you must shoot raw. Second caveat: use a raw processor that ignores the camera’s proprietary processing tags, e.g. Adobe Camera Raw. The reason why you want to crank both of these things up is that the camera’s preview engine generates a jpeg based on these settings; if your exposure is okay with the contrast at maximum, then you know you’ll have more shadow and highlight latitude. And high sharpening accentuates the differences between in focus and out of focus.And it also accentuates noise; basically, the combination of these settings makes it easier for you to tell if you’ve nailed it or not.

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Work that perspective. Nikon D3, 70-300VR

7: Don’t let zoom lenses make you lazy. Select a focal length based on perspective, not angle of view: in other words, don’t use a wide lens because you want to get more of the scenery in, or a telephoto because you want to get closer. Instead, wide is for accentuating perspective, telephoto is for compressing it.

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Action. An interpretation of the famous first series of motor drive images that showed a galloping horse’s legs do in fact leave the ground simultaneously. Nikon D700, 28-300VR

6: Shoot in bursts. Events evolve. The first shot may not be the best, or you or your subject may move. A burst is insurance, and if they’re all perfectly focused and exposed, then it lets you select the best image – say for minor variations in facial expression of a portrait. Note that I don’t mean machine gunning the shutter until your buffer is full; three or four shots is usually plenty.

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Fire. The balloon was firing on and off unpredictably. It would be a lot more difficult to get this shot without auto ISO. Nikon D3100, 85/1.4 G

5: Use auto-ISO, but only if it’s configurable. If the minimum shutter speed is not configurable, you don’t know at what shutter speed the camera is going to start bumping the sensitivity; if it’s too early, your images will be grainer than they need to be. If it’s too late, then you may not have enough shutter speed for a sharp shot.

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Cheers. Tough lighting; how do you know what your camera is going to expose for if you haven’t tried it out? Nikon D700, 85/1.4 G

4: Know what your camera is doing: AF, metering, auto-ISO. This is actually very, very important. If you don’t know how your camera responds under a given situation, how do you know if you can get the image or not? There’s no shortcut to this other than a lot of practice and experimentation.

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Alien. I prefocused on the spot where the man would be when the light was exactly behind and over him, then waited. Nikon D3, 24-70/2.8 G

3: Have some way to control your AF: either use AF-ON or AF-L, together with continuous focusing. Autofocus is an aid, not a crutch. Auto-select point systems will seldom select the point you want; they’re useful, but only in an environment where you have a lot of randomly moving subjects and need to pick the closest one. When you have something a bit more sedate, tell the camera what to focus on. Use continuous autofocus, because everything moves, if only slightly; the larger your aperture, the more this will matter because depth of field is shallower and probably won’t be sufficient to cover subject movement. I prefer to have AF activation on the shutter button and an AF-Lock button configured under my right thumb – this is so I know I can just press one button and have a high chance of getting the shot – but I also know of plenty (most sports shooters?) who configure AF-ON under the thumb, and the shutter button to capture the image only. AF Lock for that configuration is of course done by releasing the AF-ON button. Try both and see which works for you.

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This was actually shot in a well lit carpark, but with a stopped down lens and fast shutter speed to eliminate ambient and have nearly 100% of the exposure provided by the flash. If I’d shot aperture priority, I’d still be able to see the surroundings. Nikon D700, 28-300VR and three SB900s.

2: Shoot aperture priority, except for flash. This is the easiest way to maximize control of your camera: aperture priority to control depth of field, manual mode if you need to balance flash and ambient lighting.

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Watching the world pass by. Imagine this frame without the edge intrusions: it’d feel pretty different, wouldn’t it? Nikon D700, 85/1.4 G

1: Watch the edges of your frame. I’ll say it time and again: what usually makes or breaks a photo, or the difference between an excellent image and an outstanding one, is how well the subject stands out. This is both a function of subject lighting, positioning and focus, as well as the inverse: what other things are there in the frame that take attention away from the subject? Intrusions into edges are one of the main ones. Conversely, there are also compositions where edge intrusions are welcome, or even make the image: they suggest things that might not be there, or leave things to the imagination of the reader. Use with care! MT