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Canon 5D Mark III First Impressions + Reader Comments

I've just started shooting the 22-megapixel Canon 5D Mark III. Rain has been a problem, I bailed on my trip to Carrizo Plain National Monument and its bentonite-like roads.

Thanks to B&H Photo for making the 5D Mark III available for testing.

With a new camera, I start using it, and I look to see if it makes my shooting more efficient (or not) than the previous model (5D Mark II). And whether the “feel” is right. That is so important in a camera, perhaps as important as most everything else these days.

Ergonomic issues are very important to me; I make no claim as to their importance to users in general; I am not a features nerd, I just want a solid and reliable tool. Were it up to me, I’d strip off most of the modes and buttons on the 5D Mark III.

  • Zoom in/out functionality is a HUGE step backwards for Live View. Whereas before I could zoom in/out in Live View with the thumb on my right hand by feel, now I’m forced to remove or reposition my left hand from supporting the lens and/or camera to seek out and find the zoom button which is buried among other superfluous buttons on the far left. And I have to look at the rear of the camera to do so, because I can’t find it by feel— so I also have to take it away from my eye.

    It’s an unbelievable step backwards compared to the 5DM2. Nor can I find any programmable functionality to make it work as on the 5DM2. As I use Live View constantly, this is intensely irritating in the field. Maybe there is something I’ve missed— I hope so. One reader tells me that the "Set" button can be programmed to zoom in. That sounds like an improvement, assuming it has no side effects otherwise, but my thumb rests at upper right— still not the same.
  • Zoom aside, I had some real difficulty with Live View (seeing focus even zoomed in). I’m not sure why, and that’s just an initial impression.
  • The display grows very dim at times, for no apparent reason, making it difficult to see the image when playing it back.
  • The focusing screen for manual focus is indeed terrible as some users supposed. It’s very hard to achieve manual focus accuracy— completely unreliable for accurate focus. On the plus side, the focus assist (green dot) feature works pretty well for *some* lenses, but doesn’t work at all for non-chipped lenses (e.g. Zeiss ZF.2 or Leica or anything else with a lens adapter).
  • The Rate and Print buttons pollute the tactile usability by clustering them with other vastly more important buttons (like the zoom button). They’re all jammed at left, all the same size, and this forces me to have to look at the buttons to pick the right one. Very poor tactile design.
  • The rear LCD attracts skin grease (or sunblock) instantly. So in a shot or two, it is blurry from oil or sunblock from one’s nose or cheek.
  • Same deeply-recessed Canon viewfinder eyepiece which is recessed enough to make cleaning difficult (e.g. raindrops). This was a constant problem today while shooting in the field. Nikon’s eyepiece is so much easier to wipe clear. Canon has used this design for years, but it’s as problematic as ever.
  • The locking mode dial fixes one headache with the predecessor 5D Mark II, which was constantly changing shooting mode for me.
  • Nice quiet shutter.

There’s always some danger in approaching a new camera and making too-quick conclusions. But I have gone through all the settings, and so far, NOTHING is easier in the field with the 5DM3 vs the 5DM2 for the way I shoot. I have yet to find anything that satisfies as improved (ergonomically).

I have not yet assessed image quality, deferring that until I have a variety of images to look at. Assuming the sensor is a big step forward, it seems I will just have to live with the awkward new design. Or perhaps look at the Canon 1D X, to see if it does things in an ergonomically sensible way.

Scott M writes:

I just picked up my Mark III last Friday and I agree the new button layout is a disaster. A Canon DSLR would hardly be complete without the reviled "Print" button but to waste *another* button for adding "star ratings" is just insane. Hopefully a firmware update will allow this button to be programmed for somewhat more useful functions. I thought they pretty much had it nailed with the layout on the 7D. So much for progress...

Anyway I also wanted to let you know that I also experienced the screen brightness issue and I believe it's due to the ambient light sensor located *under* the screen. If you block it with your body when you hit playback the screen goes dim. There is a custom function under the "spanner" tab (second function, second page) for screen brightness. I set it to "Manual" i.e. constant brightness ("Auto" is the default) and the problem is fixed. Why they put an ambient light sensor on the *bottom* of the camera seems rather inexplicable to me...

p.s. one other thing - the silent shutter mode dampens vibrations to such an extent I was able to take acceptable (if not perfect) shots with a 135L down to 1/40s! Not quite "free IS" but close!

DIGLLOYD: I’ll try these things. With a 400 page manual (!), not everything is immediately obvious.

I have not tried silent shutter mode yet, but did not succeed in normal mode with a 100mm lens in the 1/40th range.

Gerard A writes

I was reading your preliminary take on the 5D mark iii and I too was disappointed that Canon has moved the magnify function to the left of the display. This prompted me to look at the manual and I noticed on page 321 there is a menu feature called "Custom controls." It seems you can choose several different buttons, including the asterisk button (the new one on the upper right of the camera back), or the M-Fn button (next to the shutter release) and assign them a different feature including "magnify." The latter is included in the table on page 322. As I don't have the camera in my possession as of yet, I can't try this myself, but maybe you could comment if these work or not.

DIGLLOYD: I’ll look into these settings. I don’t know why a $3500 pro camera has to ship configured in a mode that is in violation of previous operational characteristics.

Jamie B writes:

I have an educated guess as to why you are having trouble focusing in live view. The video in the 5D Mark II suffered from some very bad line skipping in sampling the sensor. A side effect was easy focusing in liveview. Canon claims to have remedied this in the video, but the easy focusing will go away too.

From the ProLost blog:

"One of the sneaky reasons it’s possible to manually focus your HDSLR off the tiny rear LCD screen is the very line-skipping that the Mark III allegedly does away with. The artificial sharpness of the poorly-sampled video we’ve grown accustomed to from our EOS HDSLRs causes in-focus detail to “pop” into crisp relief, acting as a kind of peaking focus assist. Unfortunately, this effect is permanently burned into your footage. If the 5D Mark III truly addresses the downsampling/moiré issue as Canon claims, the downside may well be that we’ll find it even harder to keep our crazy-shallow DOF shots in focus. An EVF or external LCD may go from a nicety to a necessity."

DIGLLOYD: I’ve used Live View only briefly with the 5D Mark III, and that was because it seemed difficult somehow. This might explain it. Or I could have had a mistaken impression, but I will pay close attention including trying the 5DM2 and 5DM3 side by side. Note that when I say Live View, I mean that I zoom in to 10X and eyeball things with the Zacuto viewfinder.

Peter C writes:

As a landscape photographer I have been looking forward to the Canon 5D Mark III for a long time. Although I use the 5DM2 and live and work with the noise issues I was hoping for more than a mere incremental step. I have no doubt, that ,"in the field" the 5DM3 will perform better than the 5DM2 but your initial findings do not demonstrate the significant image quality increase I was hoping for.

My problem is that having invested in significant Zeiss and Canon glass the change to Nikon (which I have never used in 35 years of photography) is just not viable. Its difficult to see Canon's perspective after 3 years of development and feedback from the world of photography, however if one takes into consideration the market for landscape vs press, wedding, and general documentary photography then it may be a simple question of investment vs demand and their (Canon's) business model simply dictates the outcome i.e. the MK3.

So what alternatives have I (and perhaps other Landscaper's got without massive re-investment? A NEX 7 with a contraption to feed my lenses, I don't think so; nice toy methinks but not a sustainable 3-5 year tool for my work.

Perhaps the 1D X at 18MP, can it be much better?

Or, compete with the Nikon 800/E, it seems to me that physics don't change - one could never get a 35mm SLR to perform at medium format no matter how good film is/was. Or are we all missing something ??

DIGLLOYD: I doubt that I will be buying the 5D Mark III. The image quality doesn’t warrant the bother, the ergonomics are not an improvement over the 5D Mark II, and I suspect that the Canon 1D X will show a superior image quality. So the 1D X will likely become my camera on the Canon side. The 18 vs 22 megapixel issue is irrelevant. I will be reviewing the Canon 1D X as soon at B&H sends me one.

The new Fuji X-Pro1 I predict will garner some serious fans. Small and light and likely to have image quality superior to the Canon 5D Mark III. And complete with 3 lenses for about the price of the 5DM3 body. No brainer for travel and hiking. BUT I have yet to review it. And then there is the new Leica digital rumor. I have no details.

The Nikon D800 or D800E might be better than MF in some ways (high ISO, dynamic range, color gamut) but it’s not the same effect in total. And the lenses are critical to extracting the quality. Which is why the Leica S2 would be my landscape camera, if only the body was not so expensive— its lenses are unequalled. The only other MF I’d look at would be the PhaseOne IQ 180. But so big and bulky and clunky that I would not use it— so the Leica S2 is really my only interest were I to invest in MF.

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