Canon 5D MKII Review and User Guide

Yosemite Winter

I have been using the Canon 5D MKII since early December, 2008, and I can tell you that this camera will revolutionize the way you take photographs. The most important feature of this camera is not the full frame sensor, which is great, but the high sensitivity and low noise of the sensor, which enables you to shoot at ISO 800-1600 with very little noise. In practice this means that you will not use a tripod nearly as much for landscapes, while you will be able to use exposures of 1/2000 sec at f/11 for action wildlife shots, if desired. I used this camera and the 24-105mm zoom for all of my Yosemite In Winter photographs. Preliminary tests with this lens has shown it to be soft at f/4, but quite sharp at f/8 and smaller apertures. It was snowing on and off for the first few days in Yosemite, and the light was very low at times. I had to use an ISO as high as 1600 on occasion to shoot at f/16, but the noise was negligible. This enabled me to shoot without a tripod for the most part, which saved an enormous amount of time. As a result, I obtained many images that I would have otherwise missed.


The original Canon 5D was the first full-frame digital camera which was half-way affordable. By no means can a $3300 camera be referred to as "affordable", but it almost seemed so compared to the 1ds series cameras. The 5D became renowned for its very high image quality and possssing the lowest noise of any camera at the time. The most remarkable feature of the new incarnation of the 5D, the 5D MKII, is also its relatively affordable price of $2700. However, in this camera we now have 21 MP, HD video, and a host of upgrades, including:

  • Auto-cleaning sensor
  • Much brighter and sharper 3" VGA LCD screen with 920,000 dots
  • Higher usable ISO values, from 200-6400, plus an expandable range of 50-25,600
  • Live View for stills and video

I have to say that I was surprised at the $2700 announced selling price. Most of the feature upgrades were reasonably predictable, and I was expecting a selling price of $3500 or so. As it turned out, I got the 24-105mm L series lens thrown in for that price. From all reports, this price structure, plus the high end camera features, have the cameras flying off dealers shelves, recession or not.

The Manual

The manual for 5D MKII, like most camera manuals, is incomplete. It does a pretty good job of getting you the basic information in a concise manner. This is obviously a good thing, because I sure do not want to carry a book with me in the field. However, it sure would be great if there was an advanced book that described some of the more esoteric features such as the back focus button and other advanced custom function features. If Canon can provide an advanced manual for my point-and-shoot, I would think they could do that for SLRs. I eventually found a link on Canon's website that does help with some advanced topics. Check out Canon's Digital Learning Center for wealth of beginning and advanced information on Canon cameras, lenses, and flashes.

The Controls

Overall, I like the controls on this camera. Most of the controls you use all the time are accessed from 3 buttons on the top right. These buttons control the metering mode, white balance, the AF mode, drive mode, ISO, and flash compensation. The AF Point Selection button is just below the LCD screen on the right, and can be quickly pressed with the thumb.
However, the on-off switch on the back of the camera at the bottom is not at all convenient to use. It may have been designed this way to ensure the camera didn't get turned on accidently. If so, they did a great job. In addition to the standard controls described above, the 5D MKII has a Quick Control screen. While this allows access to most of the controls on one screen, it can take longer to get to a given control than by using the buttons on the top of the camera. Hence I seldom use it.
One of the features of this camera that I was really looking forward to were the 3 Custom Settings on the top left control knob. I liked the idea of being able to go from one set of settings to another with 1 click of a knob. The Custom Settings work great if you shoot in Av or Tv mode. Just remember that you should not change the aperture in Av mode or the shutter speed in Tv mode; if you do, when the camera is turned back on after an Auto Off, the exposure settings will revert back to the original setting. And the Custom Settings are quite useless if you use the camera in manual exposure mode, because you will always want to change the aperture or shutter speed to suit the current light level. Then when the Auto Off functions, your exposure settings will revert back to the original settings when the camera is re-activated. It would be great if the camera remembered the exposure changes made to the Custom Settings during use, so this would not happen. As it is, I'll seldom use the Custom Settings.
Auto ISO is another new feature finally appearing on the MKII. Why is it that features have to appear first on a hundred dollar point-and-shoot camera before SLRs? It's ridiculous. However, as far as I'm concerned, Canon can take their crappy Auto ISO and leave it on the Powershots. It tends to set the shutter speed way too low unless you have a good IS lens. And the Auto ISO feature cannot tell if the lens is an IS version or not. In other words, you get the same reading with the IS on or off.
Finally, I have one more bitch about the controls. NO MIRROR LOCKUP BUTTON as usual. So you have to dig through the damn menus to find it. This is one place, at least, to use the Custom Settings. For landscape photography on a tripod, you might want a setting with mirror lockup, 2 sec timer delay, and an Av setting of f/16 or f/22.
I guess it looks like I've spent most of the above criticizing the controls. However, the most important ones described in the first paragraph are quickly set. And if you work mostly in Av or Tv modes, the Custom Settings will work fine for you. Auto ISO? I'm not sure it could ever be programmed to suit serious photographers, unless you could set certain parameters, such as slowest shutter speed, yourself.

The LCD Screen, Live View, and Viewfinder

The LCD screen is a major improvement over previous models, and seems to be the same one as in the 50D. It is relatively bright and detailed with 920,000 dots and is multicoated and scratch resistant. There is a slight delay before an image is shown, but this doen't bother me. We still haven't reached the Holy Grail of being able to critically view the images yet , of course. It would be great if you could check the depth of field critically for landscapes, but this isn't possible. With the camera set to Live View, you can stop the lens down to f/22 and the screen remains the same brightness as when the lens was wide open. Combining this with the 10X magnification gives you some idea of depth of field, at least, but in bright sun I cannot see the screen well enough for a critical determination. No big surprise there. I'm really not sure what else Live View might be good for, save the HD video; it doesn't fit my photographic style, but maybe it will be useful to you.

The viewfinder is large, bright, and sharp. However, the viewfinder information is extremely difficult to see in bright sunlight. This has often slowed me down in the field, to the point that I consider this to be the camera's biggest drawback.

Is the Camera Any Good for Action Photography?

It is difficult to find any review of this camera that just doesn't automatically criticize it's lack of speed for action photography. This is understandable, since the frame rate spec is only 4 fps. Combine that stat with the camera only having 9 autofocus sensors, and it's not surprising that it isn't considered an action camera. However, I thought the camera at least deserved a chance in the field to see what it could do.
So I set out for Santee Lakes near San Diego to bag some birds in flight with my Canon 400mm f/5.6L lens. This lens is far superior to the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS zoom lens, particularly for action photography. The zoom lens has inferior optics, focuses slowly, and the IS is not very good.

The MKII did pretty well for larger birds in flight, such as herons. It could accurately focus on such targets more often than not. Smaller, faster birds were more difficult, of course, but I was able to get decent shots of various birds, including cedar waxwings, and even tree swallows, which are very difficult no matter what camera you use:

Cedar Waxwing

Tree Swallow

The 5D MKII has features which are under-appreciated for action nature photography. The 21MP sensor means that you can blow up a small part of the image and still retain sharpness. Its low noise means that you can use ISOs of 800 or even 1600 without losing much quality at all. This allows you shoot at 1/4000 sec at f/8 if desired. Now, no one in their right mind is going to choose the 5D MKII over the 1D MK II or III, or the Nikon D3 to photograph flying birds. But it can be done, and done better than most might think.

Most action photographers will use only the central auto focus point, since it is the fastest and most accurate. This works well as long as the central auto focus point can be placed on the subject. If the subject isn't moving too fast, or too erratically, this works well. Of course, the camera should be set for servo mode, so the camera can track a moving subject. Hold the shutter button halfway down (or use the back focus button; see below) to continuously track a moving object. Also set the drive mode to continuous shooting.

However, if you are trying to photograph something like a fly catcher or a swallow, you may want to activate the 6 Assist AF points. This is particularly true when you are photographing the bird against a distant background such as the sky. These 6 Assist AF points are all within the central circle in the viewfinder. They can be activated by Custom Function III-7; setting "1" will activate the assist AF points. With this setting there will be 7 AF points tracking the subject, which is very useful for tracking erratically flying birds.

Before we leave the topic of action photography, I should mention the back-button autofocus feature. This is not new to the MKII, having been first introduced in 1989. However, I think it is a feature not understood by many owners of Canon cameras, primarily because the manual does an abyssmal job of describing it. Also, the menu descriptions on the camera are terrible. Basically, the back-button AF feature allows you to uncouple camera focusing from the shutter button and have AF controlled by the AF-On button on the top right side of the camera's back. Why would you want to do this? There are many scenarios where this would be useful. One is if you need to work in servo mode, lock the AF and then recompose. However, this isn't possible in servo mode with shutter button-activated AF because as soon as you recompose, the camera refocuses to the new spot. However, by enabling AF to work only by pressing the back-focus AF button, you can focus while pressing the back-focus button, and then release the back-focus button to recompose. Be also aware that instead of enabling AF by pressing this button, you can configure the camera to stop AF by pressing it. For a complete discussion of back-button AF in Canon cameras, check out this article on Canon's Digital Learning website.

Noise Level And The Best Way To Minimize It

As you are probably aware, there are two types of random noise in digital cameras: chromatic noise and luminance noise. Chromatic noise results in pixels of false colors appearing randomly in the photograph, whlle luminance noise will appear as tiny grains on what should be a smooth surface.
To test for noise in the 5D MKII, I set up the camera on a tripod and photographed the family room of my house, as well the unlit foyer. I used the Canon 24-105mm L lens at f/4 with the IS turned off, and used the back focus button (see above) to focus on the wall hanging in the foyer. While not terribly sharp at f/4, it was of adequate sharpness for this test. Raw and jpg images were captured, with the noise reduction set to OFF in Custom Functions II-1 and II-2. The jpg was captured using the Landscape style, modified to 0 sharpening. Images were exposed at f/4 for ISO values between 200-25,600. The part of the image just above the wall hanging is shown. The results up to ISO 6400 are shown below at 100%:

Noise ISO 200 Noise ISO 400
Noise ISO 800 Noise ISO 1600
Noise ISO 3200 Noise ISO 6400

You probably cannot see it in the reproductions above, but a little noise can be seen at ISO 400. In normal photographs, this would not be at all apparent. It is seldom apparent at ISO 800. Keep in mind there is no noise reduction of any kind in the above photos. You will probably want some kind of noise reduction for ISOs above 400. There are several ways to go about this:

  • Use the noise reduction in the camera
  • Use the noise reduction in Camera Raw, LIghtroom, or other image editing software
  • Use a separate Photoshop plugin, such as Noiseware, Noise Ninja, or Neat Image.

Anytime a procedure is used to eliminate random noise as above will always result in some loss of detail in the image. So the question then is, which way is best?
The images below show the noise on the wall as well as the wall hanging, taken at ISO 3200 and enlarged to 200%. The first image has no noise reduction, and is from the same image capture as the one above taken at ISO 3200. The next 3 images had noise reduction take place in the camera, at the low, standard, or strong setting.
Next I removed the noise using the Photoshop plugin Noiseware 4.1 with the default auto settings.
Finally, I used the noise reduction controls in Camera Raw 5.3. I slid the chromatic slider until the chromatic noise was minimized, then I adjusted the luminance slider. The settings for the noise sliders in Camera Raw are rather arbitrary, but you can see the effect in real time. To reduce the luminance noise as much in Camera Raw as in Noiseware would destroy the detail in the photograph.

No Noise Reduction
Standard Noise Reduction Strong Noise Reduction
Noiseware Camera Raw Noise Reduction

As you can see, the worst noise reduction comes from the noise reduction in the camera. I don't think this is different from any other camera on the market. Noiseware gives the best noise reduction by far. Camera Raw is still better than the in-camera noise reduction feature. Therefore, make sure the noise reduction in the camera is turned OFF in Custom Function II-2.

There is one other kind of noise that can be generated by digital cameras, and that is fixed noise that can appear in long exposures. This kind of noise is much easier to remove, since it is the same in all photos. Custom Function II-1 can be set remove this fixed noise in exposures longer than 1 second. I looked for fixed noise over a range of ISO settings from 100-3200 and exposure times of 5 sec to 30 sec, but I didn't see it. Unless you can see it under your shooting conditions, keep Custom Function II-1 turned OFF.

Image Quality

The raison d'etre of this camera is to make big prints. Really big prints. The resolution is extraordinary, but it is impossible to demonstrate this on the website. You really have to see the prints at close range to appreciate the detail that it is capable of producing. However, you don't have to make 20"x30" or larger prints to see what this camera can do; it is quite evident in 13"x19" prints from my Epson R2880 printer. The Auto White Balance works extremely well, so I have been quite happy with the color straight out of the camera. Everything about the prints that I've made with this camera can only be described as extraordinary. Any images that aren't extraordinary are my fault, not the camera's. There are no more excuses!

HD Video

I am not particularly interested in the video capabilities of the 5D MKII. Chris Sanderson of Luminous Landscape has critiqued the video capabilities of this camera better than I ever could. He is a very gifted and experienced cinematographer, and you can find his discussion of this camera's video capabilities here.

Weather Sealing

In Chris Sanderson's article referred to above, he mentions problems with the weather sealing of the 5D MKII, as does Michael Reichmann here. Of 26 MKIIs used on this Antarctic expedition, 6 failed at one time or another, apparently as a result of moisture damage. Two failed even though they were enclosed in a waterproof housing. Another failed (Chris') when brought inside the ship. However, the camera is not weather sealed, nor does Canon make any claims regarding weather resistance.

Living in southern California, I have limited experience with the camera under similar conditions. I did spend a week in December at Yosemite, where it was snowing for the first 2 or three days. I used the camera in this snow storm and was in and out of our house with the camera on numerous occasions without incident. However, it would apprear that this is not the camera to use in a steady light rain for any period of time. I don't think that is too surprising.


I found the camera to be an exceptional one for landscape photography. It can yield large prints with exceptional resolution, color snap, and tonal values. It also surprised me a bit with its ability to capture action nature images, although I certainly exposed more frames to get these images than if I had been shooting with a 1D MKIII. The low noise of the sensor will change the way you take photographs. You will be able to leave your tripod at home more often, if you want to. The camera handles pretty well for the most part, in my opinion, with a couple of exeptions. The information in the viewfinder is very difficult to read in full sunlight. It is so bad, I consider this the camera's main drawback. I really wish the Custom Functions would remember changes to the exposure and revert to these changes when the camera comes back on, rather than using the original camera settings. This would make them usable for those of us who shoot mostly in manual exposure mode. I would like a very fast way of shifting between the selected AF points. The Custom Functions could be used for this, except for the drawback mentioned above. It would be great if the MKII were weather sealed like the similarly-priced NIkon D700, and had a bit better of an autofocusing system.
No camera maker has yet made the perfect camera. Until they do, I am quite happy with the Canon 5D MKII.