With the new Canon 5D Mark IV just around the corner, I figured it would be a perfect time to look at the very first 5D. Throughout this review I'll be comparing certain aspects of the 5D Mark I to the Canon 5D Mark II (2008), Mark III (2012), the 1DS Mark II (2004), and the 60D (2010).
The original Canon 5D was announced in August of 2005, and was revolutionary for its time. It was the first full-frame camera in a standard body size. The Canon BG-E4 was the optional battery grip to enable the secondary grip. The only full-frame option before that was the Canon 1Ds line, the Kodak DCS-14, and the Contax N-digital which were all larger double grip cameras aimed at the professional market. In addition, the 5D was the first full-frame camera to enter the market at under $3,500 USD. The Canon 1DSII was nearly double the price and the Kodak DCS-14 and Contax N-digital were beginning to be forgotten about due to their older technology.
Spec. wise, the 5D seems like a fairly modest camera. Coming in at only 12.8 megapixels, 9 auto focus points, 3 fps continuous shooting, and a limited ISO range of 50-3200, one might not even think about considering it now. One can forget about live view, movie mode, and self-cleaning sensors. Those would not be introduced until the 5D Mark II in 2008.
All the negative aspects aside, I'm here to tell you why this is still a great camera.
There are several aspects that make the 5D a charmingly wonderful little camera. From it's bare-bones simplicity to fantastic image quality, it's still a joy to shoot today.
The image quality is fantastic. 12.8 megapixels may not seem like much, but the images are sharp. For portrait work, the low megapixel count may seem like a downside, but it really encourages one to get the composition correct in camera and keep cropping to a minimum. When paired with nice primes or zoom lenses, the resulting detail is stunning from low megapixel count. The low pixel count means large pixels, which results in good ISO performance and dynamic range.
While it does have a limited ISO range, the higher ISOs are very good. ISO 1600 is clean, and 3200 begins to show some noise. If you shoot RAW, things get fun. In my experience, you can push a RAW file 1 or 2 stops and still get usable results. This allows for ISO 6400 and 12800 on a 2005 camera. It's pretty incredible. Noise performance at those pushed ISO settings are similar to the 5D Mark II, with the Mark II having a slight edge in my opinion. Comparing it 1DS Mark II, the full-frame pro camera at the time, the ISO performance is slightly better on the 5D.
The dynamic range from the sensor is pretty good. It exhibits a little bit of the banding issues that have plagued Canon sensors for almost a decade when you really push the shadows. Dynamic range is on par with the 5D Mark II, and a little bit worse than the 5D Mark III. At the time, it had the best dynamic range out of all the Canon cameras. It is better than the 1DS Mark II, which exhibits more noise in the shadow regions. The 5D's small form factor and pretty good dynamic range makes it a great light-weight landscape camera.
Another dynamic range example in-front of the New York City Library in Bryant Park.
For portrait work, the camera is excellent. Beautiful color rendition and skin tones. The size and weight make it easy to shoot with for long periods of time and less intimidating than a full-body 1D series camera.
There is something very special about the image quality of this camera. It has a certain look that keeps bringing photographers back to it. The older sensor paired with the DigicII processor results in some very organic looking photos with smooth tones. Some have described it as almost film like. There are 2 other cameras which achieve similar results. The Canon 1DS Mark II, and Canon 1D Mark II, both of which feature the same processor and very similar sensor technology. The 5D being slightly newer performs ever so slightly better in regards to sensor performance, but both of the 1D series bodies are better built with better AF and drive performance. It's nice that there are a couple of options, and the price on all 3 of those cameras have dropped drastically in the past several years.
AF performance is not amazing, but it is still very good and a very capable camera. The camera features a 9-point AF system (the same one found in the later 5D Mark II), 1 cross-type in the center, and 6 assist points which are not user selectable. The assist points only function in AI-Servo mode, which is when they are most useful. An obvious direct comparison is the AF system in the 40D, 50D, and 60D, which featured a 9-point, all cross-type system. In my experience against the 60D, the 5D feels much more responsive and accurate in AI-Servo thanks to the 6 assist points which the 60D lacks. In real world use, the difference between cross-type and standard on the outer points was not that big of a difference.
Comparing to the more advanced 45-point system found in the 1DS Mark II, the simple 9-point system on paper seems like nothing. However, the center cross-type point on the 5D seems more responsive in lower light than the 1DS Mark II. Perhaps this is due to being released one year after the 1DS II and having slightly newer technology. In every other way, the 1DS II's AF system is better. Better coverage, more points, better tracking and customization, as expected from a flagship camera.
Continuous shooting is low at 3 frames a second, but for most shooting it is adequate, if not more than enough. The buffer holds about 17 frames before filling. I've shot sports with this camera on several occasions including basketball, horse racing, water sports, soccer, ultimate frisbee, and various other sports and wildlife. While something like the 5D Mark III or the 1DS II are more suited for sports, It's more than adequate enough as well as being great for events, weddings, and use in the studio.
It's max flash sync is 1/200th of a second, which is fine for studio work. For outdoors it's more of an issue, but that's why high speed sync exists. I'm also happy to report that it works fine with even the newest of the Canon flashes including the 600EX-RTs.
The Canon 5D features a 230,000 pixel 2.5" screen, which was huge for its time period. Originally the first batch had a different screen which had a slight green tint to it. The later batches use a different display and do not have the green tint issue. To avoid this issue, look for a camera with a serial number that begins with a 2 or 3. If it begins with a 1, it will be from the first batch.
Physically, the camera is relatively small when compared to a 1D series body. It's a wonderful camera for street photography or travel due to it's simplicity. It just takes photos and that's it. There aren't a lot of menus to go through, and since the display isn't that great, you can focus on the moment instead of flipping through photos on the camera.
Build quality of the 5D is excellent. It features a rugged all metal body and chassis. Although it is not marketed as being weather sealed, I've shot in light to moderate rain with no issues. Ergonomics leave a bit to be desired for most people. The grip is large and too short, resulting in your pinky finger slipping under the camera and supporting a decent amount of weight. The battery grip (Canon BG-E4) significantly improves the ergonomics and fixes the issue by extending the grip so one's pinky does not slip under the camera body. Comparing the original 5D to the 5D III, it appears as if someone took a brick and made it look somewhat like a camera. It lacks the beautiful rounded edges on the body and pentaprism that the Mark III has.
Button and dial layout is good. It matches the standard layout, and feels very natural for anyone who is used to shooting Canon. It retains the earlier dual function power and dial lock switch underneath the back dial. Some people complain that the switch moves when the camera is at one's side and not in use, which is why Canon later moved the switch to under the mode dial. It's never been an issue for me, and if it was, the camera has almost no power on delay.
Looking at the price during August of 2016, the camera can be found between $300-500 USD, which is incredible for a full-frame DSLR. One word of caution is the dreaded mirror issue that plagued the 5D. There was an issue with the 5D where the mirror would fall off. Canon issued a recall, and most cameras have had the mirror reinforced. If you are buying the camera, just make sure it has had the mirror reinforcement job and you should be good to go!
So if you are looking for a simple and fun camera as a backup, travel, or even main camera, the 5D is a great option at it's very low price, but very capable specifications. It still has a spot in my bag as the back up to the 5D Mark III.
To view other photos from this camera and view photos in high resolution, head over to my Flickr page where I have the photos posted in full resolution, and check out the results for your self!