The Canon 5D IV: Crucial to Retaining Canon’s Pro User Base!
Canon users have been eagerly awaiting a Canon 5D III replacement for some time. Most industry observers expect that the future Canon 5D IV, 5DX (or whatever they end up calling it) is now within sight. An announcement , followed by availability in the next six months, would make a lot of sense. Certainly, it would be perfectly in keeping with their historical replacement/release cycles, although the 1DX replacement (expected to be called the 1DX II) may well be announced sooner still, as Canon tends to float their flagships first.
It is my opinion that this will be one of the most important camera releases in the last five years because so much is at stake. The reason is simple: Canon has lagged behind in one key area of sensor technology for some time, namely Dynamic Range. Now we can argue about how much this matters until the cows come home (I wrote an article explaining the importance of Dynamic Range here), but the fact remains that the competition has significantly outperformed Canon in this parameter for quite a few years. In the Nikon D810 and D750, Nikon now possesses compelling bodies that the 5D III has very few advantages over in terms of their general features, dynamics and performance.
Nikon’s D750 provides a clearly superior sensor (it’s about a stop better than the 5D III on high ISO noise performance), has autofocus that is arguably equal to that of the superb 5D III, yet it costs about $1000 less and is both smaller and lighter. To further round off the picure, Nikon appears to have improved colour balance and the general look and feel of the images (and grain) to such an extent that in one online test & survey I have seen, the vast majority of people picked out the D750’s files as their favourites over the 5D III files in a blind test. I’m happy to admit that I did too and I normally much prefer Canon files….
For those who do not know why Canon sensors have been lagging behind in terms of dynamic range, here is why: Canon uses ‘off sensor/chip’ Analogue Digital Converters (ADCs), which tend to produce more ‘read noise’, which has a direct bearing on dynamic range at the lower end of the spectrum.
So why does Canon not use ‘on chip ADCs’, like Sony does on the sensors they provide to Nikon and others?
Well, it may be because it makes it more difficult to keep the chip cool when recording video. The 5D III was a hit for videographers, but was recognised as offering a very limited improvement in sensor performance over the 5D II – a 2009 camera. In contrast, the D8oo sensor offered lots more megapixels, slightly better noise performance (when downsized to match the 22MP Canon) and vastly better low ISO dynamic range.
So why does this matter?
Dynamic range can matter a lot and this is not an opinion, but a fact (I’m going to be writing an article shortly, explaining why). Now, it does not matter to all photographers, or even most, but if it matters to you, then you know why. I wrote an article a while back about Nik Dfine, which is an excellent piece of software that allows for noise control but also the removal of banding from Canon files that have been worked beyond their inherent limits. The result was abusive replies from Canon fans who did not like my viewpoint with respect to Canon dynamic range and the ease with which banding can appear. The sad fact is that I bought a camera for less than $600 (the amazing Ricoh GR, reviewed here) containing a sensor that can run rings around that in my $2600 5D III when it comes to dynamic range, banding and therefore post-processing file flexibility. I far prefer working with the little Ricoh’s files!
The market has moved on. Canon’s competitors are now able to match or better the 5D III in every other performance parameter, or do so in most with a substantial saving (D750). In terms off dynamic range, I am unable to think of one single ‘serious’ camera outside of Canon that cannot meaningfully beat the performance of the 5D III. Canon recently released the 5DS and 5DSR and while they have astonishing resolution and further fine tune the 5D chassis and internals (which are superb), dynamic range is only very marginally improved (banding control is better, however). Now, this has people worried, including me.
I love Canon cameras. I love their optics and think they are knocking it out of the park with recent lenses like the 16-35 f4 L IS, 35mm f2 IS, 11-24mm f4 L and others. But I never thought it would take this long to show they can produce a camera with meaningfully better dynamic range. Sensor technology-wise, the 7D II and 5DS area already behind us and I think Canon has one shot left: the 5D III successor and there is good reason why this camera is ‘Make or Break’:
*****Canon’s replacement cycle is about 4 years. The 5D III was with us in 2012 and most bets are for first quarter 2016 availability for its successor. If the Canon 5D IV / 5DX does not demonstrate a leap in dynamic range, then Canon prosumer body users (those who want the rounded set of features found in the likes of the 5D III, D810 and D750) know they are going to have to wait another four years. The 1DX II is irrelevant to this picture, because very few people have the pockets or need for such a beast. 5D III users are surely Canon’s brand bedrock, so this is crunch time for Canon.*****
But what if the Canon 5D IV has a superb feature set, including class leading X, Y, Z but does not feature greatly improved dynamic range (DR)?
It won’t make any difference. Sure, those who do not wish for more DR will be happy but many amateurs and working pros will likely jump ship, I suspect. Why? Because the D750 and D810 already provide such polished all-round performance that working photojournalists, wedding photographers, travel and landscape shooters don’t really feel they are missing anything critical. The argument that some Canon fans have stuck by, ‘that you can’t have it all‘ is simply nonsense. After all, the low ISO files from a friends $400 Sony A5000 run rings around the 5D III’s files when it comes to post processing flexibility and shadow recovery.
A lot of people stood by Canon in anticipation of improved DR and they have been waiting since 2012. After all, Nikon’s D3X possessed 13.7 stops of DR back in 2008! Many have been waiting for an announcement or some material indication that Canon has made the jump, but so far we have heard nothing. If the Canon 5D IV / 5DX does not feature improved DR then there is four years of certainty that no improvement will come in this crucial market segment. That would take us to 2020, twelve years after the D3X…..
There are now so many enticements to jumping ship. Nikon’s D750 and their superb f1.8 G line of primes (and third party lenses) making their system more accessible than ever before. Alternatively, many users (aside perhaps from sport and wedding photographers) can just opt out of Canon bodies while retaining Canon lenses for use on Sony A7 series bodies. Four more years in the DR wilderness will see boat loads of Canon users flock to other brands. I say this because I have read many Canon users say so…. and I will be one of them, despite my large collection of Canon glass. Canon has mentioned new sensor technology (possibly layered non Bayer sensors) and we know that some of their cine camera sensors have 15 stops of DR, so now is the time to pluck the rabbit from the hat.
I’m excited by the 5D IV. I think it will jump ahead of the D750 and D810 in many ways (not that I need it to). I think we can expect a high frame rate (8fps?), deep buffer, very fast AF and general dynamics, face detect and all sorts of gizmos, but if the DR remains the same, I think many people just won’t care. They won’t care, because they just won’t understand why Canon can’t do what other manufacturers have been doing for eight years. Its not just Sony sensors we are talking about. Samsung, Panasonic, Toshiba and CMOSIS (who make the Leica M240 and M246 sensors) have the know how and can do it with their cheapest APS-C (and in some cases, M43) bodies.
I almost forgot: Pentax is about to upset the apple cart with their new Full-Frame DSLR. While the system will be somewhat limited to begin with, look where the Sony FE is two years down range! I have my reasons for thinking this camera will really rock the foundations of the big two: Canon and Nikon. The only difference between these two is that Nikon users are not looking to leave, whereas Canon users need a solid reason to stick around for another four years. The 5D IV needs to be that camera, or I fear we will see a major unravelling of fortunes for the #1 DSLR brand. Fingers crossed!