Destined Evolution My Ass!

By now you’re probably thinking I’m being too hard on this camera and I understand if that’s so. After almost 3 years my opinion on the Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR hasn’t changed at all. In fact, from what I’ve seen I’m just more convinced that so far this has been the biggest piece of shit camera ever released by Canon (maybe even by anyone), with the Canon EOS 1D Mark III very close behind it. From the moment this camera was announced by Canon back in September 2008 I knew it had issues. In fact, I was one of the very few who didn’t buy into the hype and saw the rather serious shortcomings of this camera. A few days after it was announced by Canon, I wrote here on my blog about one of the biggest issues that would haunt this camera during its lifetime, namely the old and crappy autofocus system. Many rushed to attack me and tell me how I was being stupid and wrong. The comments to all my posts about the 5D Mark II are still there and it’s quite amusing to go back and read them. It turned out that there were many more issues that we’d have to deal with when using this camera, among which the rather poor image quality it produces under certain circumstances (banding and noise issues).

And although in the beginning it seemed like I was almost the only one who didn’t like the 5D Mark II or had issues with it, as time passed and reviews started appearing and people actually got to use the camera professionally, more and more professional photographers started to express their frustrations with the 5D Mark II autofocus system and other issues. I have documented a lot of those instances in previous posts and in the comments of those posts. Below is a listing of my posts so far on the 5D Mark II:

In the past I’ve covered well known photographers such as Zack Arias and Lloyd Chambers expressing their frustration with the 5D Mark II autofocus system and other issues, as well as comments from many other pros. More recently celebrity stock photographer Lise Gagne made a blog post where she expressed her frustration with the recent Canon cameras, among which the 5D Mark II, and explained how she had to switch to Nikon:

I’ve always been a Canon addict. I was in love with the 1ds Mark II. Then the 1ds Mark III arrived, Ive bought one and, I was on shock, I was not able to have a good sharp image. After 3 months, I sold it, I continued to use the MarkII. Then, I’ve tried the hassel. I was in love with the sharpeness, razor sharp details, etc.. I’ve bought one. This camera is amazing, but.. this camera has been built for studio and to work with lot of strobes. In natural light, in low light situation or to capture a real moment, this camera is too slow, it needs lot of light to focus properly, so very hard to capture THE moment.
I’ve started to try the 5dmarkII’s Louis, to at least, produce some natural images, unfortunately, don’t know what’s wrong with that camera, but I just cannot autofocus properly! The focus goes everywhere except on the target. It looks like that camera only focus on the brigher point.  I was quite disaapointed. So I’ve tried a couple cameras and, after those experiments, I’m now a Nikon’s user. The focus is where you want, the quality is awesome, it’s sharp, focus is real fast… It’s sad for Canon, I’ve always been loyal to them, but since the markIII and 5dmarkII, they’ve lost me. Hopefully they will come with a better one this year, I still keep all my lenses (anyway Louis uses them for video).  Nikon will probably announce a new one even if I’ve just got mine (3dx for those who are interested, the dx4 might be announced this spring and will be available in fall for us). Then I’ll choose between them but my trust is now for Nikon.

Lise Gagne makes some interesting remarks about the 1Ds Mark III and the 5D Mark II. She was unable to get sharp images with both. Many people complained about soft images being produced by the 5D Mark II, and since the 5D Mark II was said to use a similar sensor to the 1Ds Mark III, or slightly “improved” even, then it’s possible that they  both suffered from the same issues. It’s also possible that these issues are related to poor quality control. And in the case of the 5D Mark II, the softness produced by the 21MP sensor was compounded by the poor performance of the autofocus system. This would explain many of the comments I received about the 5D Mark II over the course of almost 3 years now. I sure am glad that I didn’t invest in the 1Ds Mark III myself. In fact, I almost did so but couldn’t get one in the beginning due to the low stock levels in the first few months, and then the autofocus issues with the 1D Mark III received publicity thanks to photographer Rob Galbraith and I decided to wait and not buy the 1Ds Mark III until the issues were solved (and they never were really solved).

If you think Lise Gagne is alone here, think again. Top stock photographer Yuri Arcurs expressed similar frustrations with the 1Ds Mark III in his comparison with the Nikon D3x. Arcurs was using the 1Ds Mark III when he later switched to the Nikon D3x because it has a better  autofocus system, or to be more precise, it delivers sharper images compared to the 1Ds Mark III:

The Canon has lower noise levels and the lenses perform generally better, but what does this matter if your images are more out of focus, if the camera is much harder to work with on a daily basis and if you can get the same results form a Nikon by just choosing the right lenses and get another 3 mega pixel on top?

If Canon is to stay competitive then they have to start listening to their photographer’s needs and they also have to come up with a new top model within the next six months or so.

So issues with soft images may be related to the sensor being used in the 1Ds Mark III (and the 5D Mark II) and/or the autofocus systems on both cameras. I know for a fact that the autofocus system on the 5D Mark II is simply inadequate to do the job. But the sensor itself may also just be producing soft images making the problem much worse.

Wedding photographer Ryan Brenizer made the following remark on Twitter recently:

Always an adventure shooting a wedding with the 5D and its faith-based autofocus. The D3s in my other hand kept snickering.

Even award winning photographer and Canon Explorer of Light, Vincent Laforet, recently mentioned the old autofocus system on the 5D Mark II as one of its disadvantages:

Lastly – the autofocus system (for still photographers) is the same system that was found in the original 5D – therefore it is close to 5 years old relative to newer systems.

You have to keep in mind that Laforet often closely works with Canon and he can’t openly come out and be too critical of Canon and put his relationship with them at risk. Under normal circumstances this shouldn’t have to be an issue, but a lot of photographers seem to be afraid of Canon. And if I look at Canon’s recent behavior towards photographers, then I can certainly understand those fears. In the last 3 years I’ve received emails from professional photographers who agreed with me on many of the issues I was blogging about but weren’t willing to openly come out and say certain things about Canon in public. But I think that it’s exactly this behavior that has now caused Nikon to gain ground and be ahead of Canon. Nikon photographers were very critical of Nikon in the past and Nikon listened and fixed many issues (among which the noise issues) and came back stronger than ever. Now the latest Nikon bodies (consumer and pro) produce image quality that far exceed anything Canon can currently offer according to benchmark data from DxOMark. Even professional photographers, like Lise Gagne and Yuri Arcurs, have made similar comments. In fact, quite a lot of professional photographers have switched from Canon to Nikon in the last 3 years. I’ve written about some of those cases here on my blog, but Fake Chuck Westfall has also documented a lot of them on his blog.

Here’s what photographer Laurence Kim had to say recently:

That’s one of the frustrating things about Canon. The 5D produces gorgeous image files. In fact, I prefer the files from the 5D to any other dslr. But it’s saddled with a crappy focus system. So they come out 3 years later with the 5DmkII – more megapixels, better high ISO, video mode………..but still the same crappy focus system!

It’s not hard to understand what’s going on. Clearly, Canon wants to protect their flagship 1-series by deliberately crippling all of their “lesser” camera bodies. By contrast, look what Nikon is doing. They put their best professional focusing system in the D700 (their equivalent to the 5dMkII). Hell, they even put nearly as good a focusing system into their D7000 – a body that matches up against Canon’s 60D! To quote Thom Hogan, it’s as if Canon missed a memo somewhere.

If you want a great focusing Canon, you are forced to pay $5k for their (crop sensor) 1DmkIV. So in other words, there is no such thing as a full-frame camera with a top-notch focusing system from Canon!

And let’s not forget Thom Hogan:

Canon missed a memo somewhere. The camera market is changing, but they seem stuck on executing on the old memo. Basically: more pixels, more video, same camera. Some things (autofocus comes to mind) are getting a little stale in the Canon world, while other companies seem to be pushing lots of new tech into their equipment (pellicle mirrors, new focus systems, new metering systems, etc.). This needs to change or the overall trend of Canon being nibbled to death will continue. I don’t see any evidence yet that Canon is going to change, though. 2010 was more of the same. Everyone will be looking to see if 2011 is more of more of the same.

Although it took some time, many in the industry have come to agree with what I said right from the start. But this post is not to tell everyone that I told you so, although, yes, I told you so (even before the 5D Mark II was actually available):

So now you have a high resolution sensor, 21 megapixels, but guess what? You can’t easily take pictures that are in focus, eliminating the entire point of having that much resolution available! So now you have a sensor that is extremely capable for low light, high ISO photography, but guess what, you can’t quickly and accurately focus in low light conditions. But hey, you can shoot HD quality video!

The reason why I’m writing this post is that I hope that I and many others have done enough to make it clear to Canon exactly what it is that we want to see in future cameras. And since the successor to the 5D Mark II is probably going to be released this year, I hope that we’ll finally get the full-frame camera we’ve all wanted. Like Thom Hogan said, everyone will be looking to see if 2011 is going to be more of the same for Canon, and I’m very much hoping that it won’t be. Nikon has had a 51-point professional autofocus system (same from the D3s!) on the D700 for almost 3 years now and it can only get better for the D800. Canon needs to seriously step up their game with the 5D Mark III and in my opinion can’t afford to include anything less than the autofocus system from the 1D Mark IV in it. Because Nikon, aggressive as they are right now, are going to be throwing everything they’ve got into the D800, and then some (just look at what happened with the Nikon D7000 and the Canon EOS 60D). It will be interesting to see what happens in a few months.

Update June 12, 2011:

Photographer John Edgar, a Canon shooter, recently decided to try the Nikon system for a day and although he went in expecting not to like it, you’ll be surprised by his remarks about the difference between the Canon and Nikon systems. Just like many others are saying, and like I wrote above, Canon has a serious problem with autofocus. Here’s some of what Edgar said:

Generally, a pretty high proportion of my images shot with my Canon system are out of focus, mostly because it just can’t seem to focus on the right thing. This has been a frustration for a while and definitely my main friction point with the Canon system.

I realized that in less than 30 minutes of using the camera, it felt second nature to me. Believe it or not, after 10 years of shooting on the Canon system I still sometimes get lost and turn things the wrong way or forget where a setting is. I was very, very impressed with how quickly I was able to adapt and learn the Nikon layout, and found it extremely natural and ergonomic. Hours in I said to a guest who asked me about the camera, “it really is a joy to shoot with.”

This was the perfect time to test the higher ISO ranges. I sent a quick message to my friend Ryan Brenizer to confirm that the files are pretty clean around 6400 ISO before I went trigger-happy. He gave me the nod and with a smile I set the camera there and went to town. I shot for a bit and then zoomed in to 100% and checked the shadows. Just as Ryan had mentioned: very, very clean.

The AF focus system is, at worst, much better than anything I’ve experienced with Canon. In continuous focus mode, while a lot of the AF lag is gone, so is a lot of the accuracy. That being said, I still found more of the images to be in than out or at least acceptability soft. During the photo session, shooting with good light in AF-S, the focusing was almost always spot on.

The only thing Edgar didn’t like about the Nikon system was the way it renders bokeh, though he admitted that was more his personal taste. But if I have to choose between different bokeh and to have a working system with reliable autofocus, then the choice is very easy for me. And I don’t think I have to tell you what it is.