With the release of the EOS 5D Mark II camera by Canon recently, I have begun to wonder if the people in charge at Canon’s DSLR division know anything about photography at all. This camera had the potential of becoming a great hit for many different types of photography. But as it is now, it will only be really useful for studio and landscape photography, unless you can put up with its shortcomings.

One of the biggest problems with this camera is its old and outdated autofocus system. It appears Canon just took the 3 year old autofocus system from the old 5D, made some minor changes and put it into the 5D Mark II. The autofocus system has 9 autofocus points, of which ONLY ONE (the center one) is a crosstype point, sensitive at f/2.8. The other 8 surrounding points are less sensitive, being only horizontal-line sensitive at f/5.6.

This is a huge problem for event photographers and journalists who are looking to use this camera, but even studio photographers who want to use autofocus. In low light situations, it’s going to be a real problem using the 8 outer autofocus points to focus on a subject. Many people have complained in the past about the slow autofocus using the outer points on the old 5D, and you would have expected that Canon would have listened and made improvements.

Apparently Canon hasn’t the slightest clue as to what’s going on in the real world. What’s even more puzzling, is that the EOS 40D and 50D have a similar autofocus system with 9 points, where ALL 9 points are crosstype. Why didn’t Canon at least include the autofocus system from the 50D in the 5D Mark II? The least they could have done was make all 9 points crosstype. It is very disappointing for a lot of people and is a serious handicap for what would otherwise have been an excellent product.

Apart from that, the autofocus points are too concentrated towards the center of the frame. Again, this is evidence of the fact that the people in charge at Canon know absolutely zero about what photographers want and need. With the current layout, Canon seems to expect all photographers to take pictures with the subject in the center of the frame, at least, when using autofocus. What happened to the rule of thirds, Canon? Have you heard of it??

Here’s the layout of the autofocus points on the 5D Mark II as it is now:

Viewfinder of 5D Mark II

Here’s the Rule of Thirds grid on the viewfinder, notice how all autofocus points are concentrated in the middle:

Viewfinder of 5D Mark II

Here is how the autofocus points should have been spaced out:

Viewfinder of 5D Mark II

And here the above picture again but with the Rule of Thirds grid on it. Notice how the autofocus points cover the intersections and every area nicely:

Viewfinder of 5D Mark II

I can’t believe that nobody at Canon thought of this, and that nobody at Canon has gotten any feedback on this way in advance to be able to incorporate it in the 5D Mark II. Are they even making cameras for photographers at Canon these days? Instead of including a useful autofocus system so people can actually use the camera to take good pictures that are in focus, they have instead concentrated on putting HD video recording functionality in the 5D Mark II, a feature that has absolutely nothing to do with helping people to take better pictures. Don’t get me wrong, the video recording feature is a nice feature to have, but I would expect the priorities to have been totally different. Get the core photography features in order first, and then add the extra features like video recording later. And you simply cannot cut back on a core feature like autofocus as badly as Canon seems to have done here.

What makes me really angry, is when I read the following on the Canon website about the 5D Mark II autofocus system:

Three AF modes let you choose the right focus strategy depending on your shooting requirements, and a manual AF point selection mode allows you to activate each of the nine autofocus points manually — a nice touch when your subject is off-center.

I’ve just shown that virtually all autofocus points are concentrated in the center when you use the rule of thirds. I guess they should also have stated how far off-center.

You might say that the fact that the autofocus points are concentrated in the center is not such a big deal since you can use the center autofocus point and then crop later for a good composition, but what is the use of having 21 megapixels on the camera, when you are forced to crop out a large portion of it to have a good composition?? Why have the loss of resolution due to cropping? It would have been totally unnecessary to significantly crop for composition if Canon had allowed you to be able to have a better composition using autofocus points at the time of taking the picture.

You might also say that you could use the center autofocus point to focus, and then recompose the shot. This might work if you are using a small aperture, but if you want to shoot at large apertures, especially when using fast lenses in low light, focus and recompose is not an option due to the extremely shallow dept of field. Recomposing after focusing will give you a soft or out of focus image and that’s not acceptable. In addition, when you have a slow autofocus system like the old 5D, and the 5D Mark II probably as well, focusing and then recomposing gives you an even bigger chance of out of focus images.

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!

I wonder who the people are that decide on the functionality combinations going into a camera at Canon. Seriously, I want to know. Because without a doubt they have to be some of the most stupid people on this planet. Even Fake Chuck Westfall looks smarter compared to them.

In the 3 years that have gone by since the release of the first 5D camera, has Canon not been capable of making a better autofocus system? Why did they include the same old autofocus system in the 5D Mark II?

Here’s an interesting article about the problems at Canon, where it seems that at least now people inside the company are waking up:

Canon engineers are being held back from developing new sensor technology by marketing departments in a “race for megapixels”, claims an employee of the Japanese photography company.

The employee told Tech Digest that Canon have the technology to “blow the competition away” in terms of image sensors, but are instead being asked to focus on headline figures like the number of megapixels a camera has. When asked for his opinion on the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, which we covered this morning, the employee said:

“I am hugely disappointed because once again Canon engineers are dictated by their marketing department and had to keep up with the megapixel race. They have the technology to blow the competition away by adapting the new 50D sensor tech in a full frame format and just easing off a little on the megapixels. Although no formal testing has been done on the new model yet, judging by the spec and technology used, it just seems to be as good or as bad as the competition – not beating them by a mile (which we used to).”

Hey guys, apart from megapixels and sensor quality, how about also looking at other features like a good autofocus system, good weathersealing like the D700, a better viewfinder and mirror/shutter mechanism and higher framerate etc. etc. Things that actually matter to taking a good picture. Not video recording and other crap like that.

As of right now, the Nikon D700 is still overall the best camera to own. The 5D Mark II is only useful as a studio/landscape camera and only if you need 21 megapixels.

I don’t think Canon will be able to afford to leave the 5D Mark II on the market for another 3 years. I think they will have to update it as early as next year, or perhaps introduce a new model, maybe a 3D, that will be better than the 5D Mark II. Expect the price of both the 5D Mark II and 50D to significantly drop early next year when the (hopefully) fixed 1D succesor will be announced.

Canon better hope that the release of these cameras will be flawless. The products are already mediocre at best, and any quality control issues are going to significantly hurt them this time.

And finally, if they get really serious at improving autofocus at Canon, the configuration of autofocus points in the picture below would be very welcome (all crosstype sensitive). Ofcourse, Nikon and Sony are also welcome to do this:

Update: It looks like even a wedding pro had trouble getting the focus right using the 5D Mark II. After all the complaints about the soft images he posted on his site, here is the update that he had to make to his post:

Update: Please remember these shots were taken with a beta release camera on launch day.  I took them on-the-fly whilst demonstrating the camera to press and distributors so yes the focus might be slightly out on one or two.  I’m happy with the look of these images which are consistent with my style.  I am not looking for absolute sharpness and so applied no additional sharpening to the images in production.  Please accept these images for what they are which is a demonstration of the new camera’s amazing high ISO performance and don’t try to read too much into pixel-level sharpness.  We all want to see what the camera can do with our normal RAW-based workflow but that will have to wait.

Hilarious! You’re not looking for absolute sharpness?? We shouldn’t read too much into pixel-level sharpness? What??? Why do we have 21 megapixels then???? Aren’t you a pro? According to Dirck in the comments below, you should be able to manually focus precisely! Now more than half of your pics are soft. What would you do if this was a paid shoot? Take special note of the fact that the images that look soft and out of focus, are especially those where the subject is off-center. Also read this thread on DPReview. Now, if a pro photographer can’t seem to get his focus right with the 5D Mark II with POSED shots, then how do you think you’ll focus when you’re doing event photography, sports, documentary or other types of action shots?

IMPORTANT Update 12/22/2008: Read my latest post on the 5D Mark II, especially before you buy!

Update 12/28/2008: Apart from the wedding pro which I mentioned above, recently a fashion photographer got a chance to experience first hand just how bad the AF system of the 5D Mark II really is. Check out the post on his website. Here’s a quote:

So this week I got a change to use the 5D2 for a real shoot, using daylight which is my favorite way to shoot. Unfortunately, for full body shots, I got many frames where the model is out of focus. I counted 50% of the shots out-of-focus using the outer AF points and my 85 1.2 on a tripod! A few were due to movement of the model, but mostly just due to misfocus with the outer AF points which were positioned over her face. Fortunately I noticed this fairly early on and switched to the center AF point, which worked fine.

A week prior I found that these outer AF points work like a charm with the 85 1.2 lens in fairly bright light outdoors, but they apparently are not stellar performers when it’s dim. This is very disappointing in a $3000 camera. You will definitely do better with the 1Ds2 or 1Ds3 if you are shooting dim available light as I often do.  However if you are in a situation where you can use the center point 100% of the time the 5D2 AF should work fine.

I saw these issues coming way in advance.

Update 01/07/2009: I came across another review of the 5D Mark II. Here are some quotes:

Sample images have shown that the DIGIC IV is doing some skillful noise reduction in-camera. JPEG shooters should seriously rejoice. The RAW files may be somewhat of a disappointment to concert photographers as Canon’s Chuck Westfall was reported to say that the RAW performance of the 5DmarkII sensor as being similar to that of the 1DSmarkIII, which is only spec’d to ISO1600.

Honestly, the focusing specs of the 5D Mark II are the most personally disappointing part of the camera. With only 9 selectable AF points clustered at the center of the viewfinder, the photographer is forced to focus and recompose the image more often than not.

While not horrible on its own, focus and recompose is horrible for tracking a moving subject while maintaining a specific composition. I know a lot of concert photographers who make due with Canon’s 9 point system, but coming from the 1D Mark III, which has 19 selectable points, I have little interest in anything less.

Furthermore, I believe only the center point of the 9 AF sensors present on the 5D Mark II is cross-type and sensitive to f/2.8. This is particularly important to concert photographers who are regularly forced to shoot at f/2.8 or faster. Without getting into the details, the outer 8 AF points on the 5DmkII are several stops less accurate under normal concert conditions than the center point.

My biggest fear is that Canon has put too much energy into the megapixel race and very little energy into improving other features of the camera that really affect the feature set and user experience.

I personally had a lot of hopes for this camera as a smaller FF backup to my 1D Mark III. The specifications of this camera were a significant factor in my recent decision to switch to Nikon.

Especially pay attention to the last sentence above. “Switch to Nikon.” Unfortunately, many are doing so right now, and many are looking to make the switch soon because of the disappointing products from Canon lately.