Canon EOS 5D Mark III Review

April 11, 2012 | Mark Goldstein |


Announced just over 3 years since its popular predecessor, the long-awaited and much-rumoured Canon EOS 5D Mark III digital SLR camera has finally arrived. The EOS 5D Mk II was something of a break-through camera for Canon, bringing 35mm full-frame, 1080p HD video recording to a wider audience. Now the 5D Mark III is here, and although it looks very similar from the outside, there have been some major improvements on the inside. The twin headline features are the 22 megapixel, full-frame CMOS sensor, and the ability to record video at full 1080p high-definition. Other new and improved features include a 61-point auto focus system, 63-zone metering system, enhanced weather sealing, an expanded ISO range of 50-102,400, high bit-rate video compression options, larger 3.2 inch LCD screen dual CF and SD memory card slots and continuous shooting at 6 frames per second. Significantly more expensive than the 5D Mk II on launch (£2999 / €3569.99 / $3499.95), read the full review to find out if the new Canon EOS 5D Mark III is a worthy successor to the camera that it replaces.

Ease of Use

The 5D Mark III is outwardly very similar to its predecessor, being very slightly bigger (152 x 116.4 x 76.4mm) and weighing 140g more (950g in total) than the Mk II. The 5D Mark III has a magnesium alloy body, which should make it more durable in the longer term than plastic-bodied cameras, and it also adds a welcome level of weather-proofing for protection against dust and moisture. There's a textured area on both the deep hand-grip and around the thumb-rest on the rear of the camera, and size-wise the 5D Mark III is perfect for everyone with normal to large-sized hands. On the front of the 5D Mark III is an infrared port on the grip, depth-of-field preview button, self-timer lamp and a monaural microphone.

Like other semi-pro cameras, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III offers two control wheels; a small one on the top of the handgrip, and a large, spinning dial on the back of the camera. This rear 'quick control dial' is characteristic of all high-end Canon EOS cameras, used to apply rapid exposure adjustments. It's a bit of an acquired taste compared to more conventional control dials, but you quickly get used to it and it is easy to 'spin'. There's a dedicated Lock switch which toggles this dial on and off.

The quick control dial does take up the space where you'd normally expect to find a four-way controller, which means that for menu navigation Canon has had to incorporate an additional small joystick on the back of the camera. This joystick works well enough, but it's not as positive or as easy to use as a conventional four-way controller. Underneath is the new Quick button which opens the Quick Control screen. Depending on which shooting mode you're using, this lets you set various parameters via the LCD screen, using the joystick to move around the various options. Previously accessed on the 5D Mark II by pressing in the joystick, the Quick Control screen is particularly well-suited to beginners and tripod work.

On top-right of the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, positioned above the large monochrome status LCD display, are three buttons, each of which has two functions. You press a button and then turn either the top dial or the rear dial to change the corresponding setting. It does take a little while to memorise which button does what, and which dial you need to turn. The 5D Mark III also shows the settings on the main LCD screen as well as the status LCD. There's a smaller fourth button which activates the status LCD display light so that you can use it in the dark.

There are two LCD displays on this camera; the 3.3-inch colour LCD on the rear and the smaller status panel on the top. On cheaper DSLR cameras, the LCD on the rear usually has to do both jobs, but on this model all of the camera's main settings are visible from above on the smaller panel. This makes the Canon EOS 5D Mark III quicker to use and also helps to extend the battery life. The main LCD screen offers a fantastic VGA resolution with 1,040K dots, so you may find yourself using it more often than you thought. Importantly it also allows you to judge the critical sharpness of your photos using the LCD screen. The viewfinder has also been upgraded, now offering an improved 100% coverage to its predecessor’s 98%, with a magnification of 0.71x and dioptre correction.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Front Rear

Like most DSLRs aimed at prosumers, the EOS 5D Mark III offers all the usual serious manual and semi-automatic shooting modes for users who want more advanced exposure control, via a chunky and positive dial on the top-left of the camera body (now with a central lock button to prevent the dial from inadvertently moving). Canon refers to these advanced operations as the 'creative zone' and provides all the normal settings including Program, Aperture and Shutter Priority and the full Manual mode. There is a new auto shooting mode aimed at beginners called Scene Intelligent Auto, which effectively replaces the 5D Mark II's Full Auto and Creative Auto modes. Scene Intelligent Auto allows you to change just a few key settings using the LCD screen, setting both the aperture and shutter speed for you.

The 5D Mark III's power switch has been relocated to underneath the shooting mode this dial, much like on the Canon EOS 7D as well, and there's also the same Multi-Function button from the 7D too, positioned next to the shutter release button. The M-Fn , or Multi-function, button is a new addition to the top of the camera, which toggles through the five different AF area choices after pressing the AF Point select button The AF areas are Manual AF, Spot AF, AF point expansion, Automatic AF point selection and Zone AF, and they can also be selected via the Quick Control Screen menu.

Once the EOS 5D Mark III is in one of the 'creative zones', users can adjust the ISO setting into one of 12 positions from 50 to 102,400 (you need to to enable the ISO 50, 52000 and 102,400 modes via the "ISO expansion" custom function option). This massive ISO range allows you to shoot in almost any lighting conditions without having to resort to using flash, which is good news as the 5D Mark III doesn't actually have a built-in pop-up flash (you'll need to budget for an external flashgun). The EOS 5D Mark III offers a range of three Auto focus modes (One Shot, AI Focus and AI Servo), and there are six preset, auto, kelvin and custom white balance options.

The viewfinder displays all key exposure information including the ISO speed, and there are four metering modes including a tighter 1.5% Spot metering mode, useful in tricky lighting conditions as an alternative to the excellent and consistent Evaluative metering system. The 5D Mark III uses the same 61-point auto-focus system as the flagship EOS-1D X DSLR, a big improvement on the 5D Mark II's rather rudimentary 9-point auto-focus system. No less, than 41 of them are cross-type points, with five being the extra sensitive double-cross type, helping to ensure that moving objects remain in focus. There's also a whole AF menu dedicated to fine-tuning the 5D Me III's autofocus system, with a range of customisable AF pre-sets helping you to deal with different subjects.

The menu system is the same as on most EOS cameras, utilising a simplified tab structure that does away completely with scrolling. There are 6 main menu options, each containing up to 5 individual tabs of options. You can even setup your own customised menu page for instant access to frequently used settings via the My Menu setting. Only the complex Custom Functions and AF menus detract a little from the overall usability. Thankfully the documentation that comes with the 5D Mark III is clear enough, as it is with all Canon cameras, if a little light on detail. You do get a the manual in English throughout and you'll find most things that you need to know about the camera's operation in here, without the need to search through the supplied CDs for an 'electronic' manual.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Front Side

I tested the EOS 5D Mark III with the popular EF 24-105mm f/4L IS lens, which is offered as a kit lens in some regions. This combination offered fast, positive autofocus, can track moving subjects very well an is also near-silent, and I'd recommend that you choose this kit if you're buying into the Canon system for the first time. The 24-105mm lens also crucially features image stabilisation. This is important for Canon, as some competitors image stabilisation that's built-in to the camera body. The main difference between Canon (and Nikon) and the other manufacturers is that Sony (plus Olympus and Pentax) have opted for stabilisation via the camera body, rather than the lens, which therefore works with their entire range of lenses. Canon's system is obviously limited by which lenses you choose, but it does offer the slight advantage of showing the stabilising effect through the viewfinder. Canon and Nikon also claim that a lens-based anti-shake system is inherently better too, but the jury's out on that one.

The EOS 5D Mark III features the latest DIGIC 5+ image processor, which produces noticeably faster image processing, start-up and image review times than the 3-year old 5D Me II (as you'd expect), and better noise reduction in high-ISO images (jump to the Image Quality page for ISO samples). DIGIC 5+ also allows the 5D Mark III to shoot a lot faster than the previous 5D model, obtaining a speed of 6fps for up to an incredible 16,000 full-sized JPEGs with a UDMA 7 (Ultra Direct Memory Access) Compact Flash memory card or 18 RAW images (the 5D could only shoot at 3.9fps). 14-bit A/D conversion, in-camera HDR processing, multiple exposure function and in-camera RAW processing are also enabled by the Digic 5+ processor. Battery life is rated to CIPA standards at 950 shots using the viewfinder, or 200 shots in live view mode. This can be doubled by using the optional BG-E11 battery grip which takes two batteries.

The 5D Mark III has an identical Live View system to its predecessor. If you're new to DSLRs and don't understand the terminology, basically Live View allows you to view the scene in front of you live on the LCD screen, rather than through the traditional optical viewfinder. This is an obvious attraction for compact camera users, who are familiar with holding the camera at arm's length and composing via the LCD screen. It's also appealing to macro shooters, for example, as it's often easier to view the screen than look through the viewfinder when the camera is mounted on a tripod at an awkward angle.

Live View is much easier to turn on, unlike the 5D Mark II where it was inexplicably buried deep within the menu system, with a new dedicated switch on the back of the camera which toggles between Live View and Movie recording and a self-explanatory Start/Stop button. A grid line display, new dual-axis electronic level and very useful live histogram can be enabled to help with composition and exposure, and you can zoom in by up to 10x magnification of the image displayed on the LCD screen. Focusing is achieved via the AF-On button, or you can half-press the shutter-button. Live View can also be controlled remotely using the supplied EOS utility software, which allows you to adjust settings and capture the image from a PC.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Top Front

So who does the EOS 5D Mark III's Live View mode most appeal to? Well, it attempts to satisfy both the consumer and more technical user, with three types of focusing system on offer. The first, Quick AF, works by physically flipping the camera mirror to engage the auto-focus sensor, which then momentarily blanks the LCD screen and causes a physical sound, before the image is displayed after about 1 second. The other methods, Live AF and Live AF with Face Detection, use an image contrast auto-focus system, much like that used by point-and shoot compacts, the main benefits being the complete lack of noise during operation, and no LCD blackout. Unfortunately these are much slower than the Quick AF mode, taking over 3 seconds to focus on a clearly-defined subject in bright light, which I think will put off most users that are attracted by the promised point-and-shoot experience. On a more positive note, you can move the AF point around the screen, and the 5D Mark III successfully detected faces in most situations.

Live View is also used for the feature that generated the most interest in the previous Canon EOS 5D Mark II: the 1080p movie mode. The new 5D Mark III records high-definition 1080p, wide-screen video in 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution, at a variable frame rate from 24fps to 60fps in MOV format. There is also 720p 1280x720 pixel recording at 50/60 fps. New high bit-rate video compression options include intraframe (ALL-I) and interframe (IPB). The maximum size of a single video clip is either 4 gigabytes or one second below 30 minutes. You can also take either single or continuous stills during recording, with video capture continuing after the final still frame has been taken. Audio is recorded in linear PCM format without any compression. There's a built-in microphone on the front of the camera for mono recording, a socket on the side for connecting an external stereo microphone, plus a headphone socket which enables sound level monitoring both during and after shooting. It also has an HDMI port for playing back 1920 x 1080 still images on a HD TV. It uses the industry-standard HDMI mini-out connection, but note that you'll need to purchase a suitable cable separately. You can also still connect the 5D Mark III to a standard TV set via NTSC/PAL.

Although you can autofocus during movie recording, the camera uses the painfully slow contrast-AF mode. Focusing manually is a much better idea, although most AF lenses have MF rings with very little 'travel' between their close-focus point and infinity (the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS is quite good in this regard), and in a quiet environment it's also possible to hear the sound of the focusing ring. You can now set the aperture and shutter speed from the camera in movie mode, and exposure compensation and AE-Lock can also be used. You can take a single/sequence of still shots whilst shooting video, but this causes a 1 second delay which you'll need to edit out later. Handholding the EOS 5D Mark III and shooting video is very difficult, with the DSLR form factor not lending itself well to controlled shooting at arm's length. It's a much better idea to mount the camera on a dedicated video tripod. While experienced videographers will be writing our their cheques for the 5D Mark III right now, more casual users hoping to grab some quality footage of the kids may be put off by the inherent difficulties of shooting video using the relatively alien SLR format.

The EOS 5D Mark III implements the same dust-removal technology as its predecessor, where the sensor is shaken briefly at high frequency to dislodge any dust particles from its surface. This could delay the need for manual sensor cleaning, perhaps indefinitely, but it won't be able to remove 'sticky' deposits like salt spray, pollen or the smears left behind by careless sensor cleaning or the wrong kind of solvent. The 5D Mark III also inherits the internal Dust Delete Data system from the 5D Mark II, which can map the position of visible dust on the sensor. This can then be deleted automatically after the shoot with the supplied Digital Photo Professional software.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

Peripheral Illumination Correction is a feature that's actually a lot simpler that it initially sounds. Basically it corrects the unwanted effects of vignetting, typically seen in wide-angle photos in the corners of the frame. The 5D Mark III contains a database of correction data for various Canon lenses and, if Peripheral Illumination Correction is enabled, automatically applies it to JPEG images. For RAW images the correction is applied later in the Digital Photo Professional software. Up to 40 lenses can be programmed into the 5D Mark III, with over 80 currently available to choose from. Peripheral Illumination Correction is a useful and effective addition, particularly for JPEG shooters, and can safely be left turned on all of the time.

Even more useful, especially if you have a number of older lenses, is the AF Microadjustment feature that has trickled down from the pro DSLRs. This allows you to alter the focus of each lens, then use a focusing target to test if the lens focuses correctly, and if it doesn't, alter it slightly using the AF Adjustment option, then test again until perfect focus is achieved. With most other DSLR systems you'd have to send the camera and lens off for calibration (and maybe even have to pay for it), but with the 5D Mark III, you can calibrate all of your lenses in the comfort of your own home (up to 20 lenses can be stored in the camera). The EOS 5D Mark III features a new silent shooting mode that reduces the sound of both the shutter and mirror, perfect for situations where you don't want to draw unwanted attention to yourself. A continuous silent mode is also available, although its at a slower rate of 3fps than the headline 6fps mode.

Once you have captured a photo, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III has an average range of options for playing, reviewing and managing your images. More information about a captured image can be seen on the LCD by pressing the Info button, which brings up a brightness image histogram and all the shooting Exif data, including shutter speed and the time and date it was captured, with a second press displaying an additional RGB histogram. Highlight Alert and AF Point Display can also be turned on via the Playback menu. It is simple to get a closer look at an image as you can zoom in up to 15 times, and it is also possible to view pictures in a set of nine contact sheet. Pressing the Creative Photo button displays two images side-by-side to allow you to compare the quality of different exposures on the camera. You can also delete an image, rotate an image, view a slideshow, protect images so that they cannot be deleted, and set various printing options. Unlike some competitors, there are no digital styles or effects that can be applied to an image after it has been taken - the more subtle Picture Styles are the only way of tweaking your JPEGs in-camera, before they are captured. In-camera image rating via a new dedicated button on the rear makes it easy to organise your images ahead of post-production, with the rating maintained in IPTC-friendly software.

The Canon EOS 5D Mark III's software suite is very good. Admittedly, photographers who've graduated to a camera like this one will almost certainly have chosen image browsing and editing software already, so they won't need the basic image browsing program included here, but there's more than that. You also get Canon's simple but effective PhotoStitch application for making panoramic shots, a utility for using the 5D Mark III remotely (while tethered to a PC) and Canon's Digital Photo Professional application for converting RAW files. This is a big bonus, because other makers don't always include such good RAW conversion software. Digital Photo Professional certainly isn't the best RAW converter on the market, but importantly does mimic the camera's Picture Styles 'retrospectively'. In addition the supplied Picture Style Editor software can be used to create custom Picture Styles on your computer instead of in-camera. Note that at the time of writing, the version of Digital Photo Professional that ships with the 5D Mark III can't actually be used to edit its RAW files because it creates very soft images. Canon are due to release an update in mid-April.

That concludes our tour of the Canon EOS 5D Mark III's interface - now let's take a look at its image quality.