For almost a year now, I’ve been shooting the Fujifilm X-System as my primary tool for commercial photography. I still have my Sony equipment and when I sold my Canon 5D III, I did not sell off the lenses I valued the most. Six months ago, I got my hands on a Canon 5D IV for several months and it got me thinking. I wondered whether my immersion in mirrorless had blinded me to what a modern DSLR could do. So I shot with the 5D IV for quite some time, at first to re-familiarise myself with using a Canon 5 series body and then for work. This gave me a direct insight into the 5D IV itself and also into whether I still felt any DSLR envy. Here is how it went:
The first realisation is that the image quality from the Canon 5D IV is truly wonderful. Some people looking enviously at the 36-48MP of the Nikon D810 or D850 may think that 30MP isn’t a lot. Personally, I felt like it was a very nice compromise between 24 and 36MP. Contrary to some, I did not find the Anti-Aliasing filter too strong and I thought the files sharpened up beautifully (I never saw moiré in ‘real’ files either). The RAWs had bags of dynamic range and I was able to dig deep without fear of running of flexibility or into heavy noise. I also noticed rather quickly that the colour was fantastic for people photography. Really amazing. Skin tones always seemed very close to perfect.
I went to a wedding in Ireland with my wife and shot the above image. I am showing it here with out of camera colour, minus the blue cast from the clouds/sky, which gave the image a very cool tone. Skin tones are incredibly accurate to my memory. I heavily underexposed the bride to prevent serious highlight clipping and then adjusted it in post. The result was a lovely image and balanced tones. This would have been impossible with the 5D III (or with the new 6D II for that matter) and would have required flash. FWIW I could have done the same with the X-T2, but there would be a little more noise.
In my initial testing of the Canon 5D IV, I was amazed at how much like the 5D III it is. Surely this is a compliment to Canon in the sense that anyone used to the 5D III (as I was) can pick up the newer camera and take off running. However, this was also a problem. In use, under normal lighting, the AF felt exactly the same as the 5D III. It felt no quicker and no more assertive. The focus points were no more visible in low light (i.e. not very visible at all) and I felt far less sure as to whether correct focus had been achieved than I do with my X-T2. Focus was nearly always smack on. It was definitely more reliable overall than the Canon 5D III and tracking was awesome. Low light tracking was seriously impressive. However, I felt more detached from what the camera was doing and deciding than I have with mirrorless. Most of the time, AF did not feel meaningfully quicker than with my X-T2s and occasionally it felt slower. In very low light, especially in low contrast settings, however, the advantage of the 5D IV was very clear.
The grip was familiar, but the size wasn’t. With a 24-70 f2.8 L II attacked (which I no longer own), the camera is arguably in its sweet spot. However, with smaller lenses attached it still felt big and boxy, whereas the X-T2 with 23mm f1.4 (for example) felt light and nimble. The small decrease in weight over the 5D III is very real though. It is not big on paper, but it is noticeable in use. Most noticeable, however, is how much less camera and lens can be fitted into a given bag space compared to the X-T2. This was a real Jaws moment: “we’re gonna need a bigger bag!”
Battery life on the Canon 5D IV may not be as good as with comparable Nikons, but it was wonderful compared to my X-T2s! In continuous use, one battery in the Canon 5D IV is comparable to or better than three batteries in a gripped X-T2. As nice as this is, it did not really leap out as a huge plus to me. I have become accustomed to carrying spares for my Fujis and managing them as part of my kit preparation. What’s much more noticeable are things like the next point.
The lack of information was shocking. After using EVFs, going back to the TTL optical finder of the Canon 5D IV was a bit of a struggle. The biggest issue was an absence of real time exposure information on the 5D IV. Argghhhh. When shooting with the Fujifilm X-T2, I am used to twisting the exposure compensation dial without thinking. I twist it until the image looks right and will sometimes check the little histogram to ensure I am making the right choices when choosing highlight or shadow compromises. This is very quick indeed and is intuitive….. and is completely impossible with a DSLR. With the 5D IV it felt like I was going back in time and shooting in a manner more consistent with film use than digital i.e. having to make an educated guess as to the best exposure, set it (not see it) and shoot it. I hate chimping because you break eye contact with the environment and subjects. It also threatens to pull you out of ‘the zone’. However, I had to do it. The most annoying part is that if the subject has moved into new lighting since you last chimped, you need to do it again. And again. With an EVF, you can just trim the exposure compensation as you go. A change of 2/3 of a stop takes about 1/2 a second to complete physically and mentally. Then, if there is a slight change *that you can see in the EVF* you can dial back 1/3 of a stop, for example. Alternatively, you may see a change to the highlights in the EVF but not shadows and so decide not to make any change at all. With an OVF, it is much harder to see how changes in lighting are affecting different elements of the scene. On top of this, EVFs are ever so helpful when shooting in dark conditions, not only because you see how the camera’s exposure decision, but you can see so much more of what is going on. With the Canon 5D IV it felt like someone had switched the lights off.
The build quality of the 5D IV felt lovely. It is a very well made camera, beautifully finished and very robust. It exudes quality and seems to be a tiny bit better than the 5D III in this regard. The additional solidity over the X-T2 is most apparent in the knobs and dials, which feel like they’d take more of a beating than the Fujifilm cameras. With how I use cameras, I would not get close to seeing how well made the 5D IV really is, but I won’t with the X-T2 either.
Speed. This was interesting. Compared to the 10fps of a X-T2 with powerbooster, the 7fps of the Canon 5D IV felt positively pedestrian. It was ‘just sufficient’, but I still feel Canon were being mean not to give 8 or 8.5fps. This would have been enough of a boost to make a difference to the main user base, but not enough to eat into 1DX II sales. They’re different beasts. Worse – much worse – was the buffer. Oh. My. Goodness. For a camera of this price it is shameful to hit the buffer so quickly and for it to clear relatively slowly. I’d read about this complaint upon release, but did not expect to find myself swearing at it quite so much in use. I also did not own a CompactFlash card of sufficient size and had to buy one. This type of card is archaic and should not have been used for the camera IMO.
Lenses & Depth of Field. This is an area where I felt a little ache. The Canon f1.2 lenses operate better on the Canon 5D IV than the 5D III. My 50 f1.2 nailed focus again and again, as did the 85mm f1.2 L II. I was able to get wonderful separation, even when backgrounds were messy and too close to the subject for comfort. I was also able to use a Sigma ART 24-35mm f2, which blew me away. Shooting with that gave me equivalent performance to shooting a 16-23mm f1.4 zoom on the X-T2. I use these two focal lengths a lot and it was nice not to have to change lenses or toggle between two bodies. The extra stop over a 24-70 f2.8 lens can be hugely important and also gives better background separation of course. And holy cow that lens performs well at f2. It is one of the most impressive optics I have ever used, once I carried out….
AF Microadjustment: My goodness, this is a nonsense in this day and age. It is bloomin’ time consuming, boring as hell and often not that easy to get right. Evident in the process of calibrating various lenses to the 5D IV was how erratic focus is at close distances with wide angle wide aperture lenses on DSLRs. Mirrorless cameras nail it every time. Perfectly. With DSLRs that lack automatic AF microadjustment, not only do you have to carry out this laborious process (especially for Sigma lenses, as there are more adjustments to do), but you also have to accept that the camera & lens will be no more accurate/consistent in use than it was in testing!
Did I mention how good that Sigma ART 24-35mm f2 was? Sharp, decent enough bokeh, great build, amazing cross frame performance at surprisingly wide apertures and superb price for what you get.
The Canon 5D IV is a superbly competent camera. Sure, it’s a bit boring and it is limited by it’s heritage, but the files are oh so good. They’re noticeably better than my X-T2 files for sure (a bit more detail (more pixels), lower noise (the 5D IV has a larger sensor of course)), but there was so much more to shooting the camera than this. In terms of how nice the files were overall, I think they’re up there with the best overall files I have ever used. FWIW, I think that for natural scenes Fujifilm colour is superior. I find Canon greens a bit unnatural, but this can of course be adjusted in processing. The Canon perhaps has a slight edge for skin tones though. Maybe.
5D IV AF in the lowest light is better, but I felt like I’d had one of my senses switched off whilst shooting, compared to my mirrorless cameras. There’s so much less information and this seemed a bigger disadvantage because I felt it throughout. Additionally, I did not feel like the optical aspect of the Canon 5D IV finder held much of an advantage at all. I do not really register the fact that my EVFs are not optical, but I do quickly become aware of the fact that optical finders aren’t EVFs. This is most obvious when I forget to cancel out strong exposure compensation and only realise 20 frames later, after the moment is gone. Ouch. This doesn’t happen with mirrorless, because you don’t need to chimp to see it. EVFs have moved on a long way from their earliest days.
The Canon 5D IV felt comparatively big and bulky. It also felt like it had really been held back by Canon in terms of frames per second and buffer. It seems strange to have a much smaller and cheaper camera like the X-T2 feel just as snappy 95% of the time and *much* faster when at full fps (11fps with booster). None of this means anything if the AF can’t keep up, but with the X-T2 it can. The 5D IV is a serious professional tool and it has no serious weaknesses at all; however, it just didn’t strike me as impressive enough to justify the UK asking price. Dual Pixel RAW is a waste of time and Dual Pixel AF is of primary benefit to video shooters (which I’m not), so these features can’t offset the areas where Canon pushed the stops in, rather than pulled them out. The overall performance envelope feels more like what the 6D II should have been (albeit with a higher end chassis), so to make up for it, Canon was forced to hobble that camera too. It seems everything was determined not by what Canon could actually provide customers, but segregation determined by the marketing department based on the capabilities of the 1DX Mark II. At the opposite end of the scale you have the Nikon D850. Well done Nikon.
Canons L series lenses are still marvellous and the jewel in the company’s crown (for now). The performance of the EF lenses (L or not) definitely showed up the relative lack of sophistication with some of the older Fujifilm XF offerings, from an AF point of view. That said, there are many seriously impressive lenses for the Sony FE mount and all Fujifilm’s recent lenses have very sophisticated AF. Canon won’t be able to rest on their L series lenses to retain users for much longer.
Mirrorless continues to mature, while DSLRs rapidly approach the wall (opinion). As good as the 5D IV is (and will remain for serious shooters who aren’t enticed by features they don’t care about), I still feel Canon made a huge mistake hobbling the camera. If anyone was unsure as to how the company thinks, fitting an archaic sensor with less than 12 stops of Dynamic Range into the 2017 6D II should have made it clear.
The 5D IV is a really good camera, but it wasn’t good enough to offset the inherent advantages that mirrorless cameras provide me with. Those mirrorless advantages started off a bit rough around the edges, but they’re now starting to really shine. Maybe the D850 would impress me more, but it remains a DSLR with some of the inherent characteristics that come with that fundamental architecture. That architecture can’t and won’t change, whereas mirrorless cameras will continue to get better and better in those areas where DSLRs have reigned supreme. Just look how good eye AF now is with Sony cameras and this is not a gimmick. I will be talking about this more in a future article.
I couldn’t go back to DSLRs and won’t be looking back either. I can live with the diminishing weaknesses of mirrorless for the very short period while they still exist. Spending several months with the Canon 5D IV felt like a backward step, probably because it was. The truth is that even if all the equipment were free, for my purposes, I would still choose an X-T2 based system… a camera which costs half as much as the Canon 5DIV. it isn’t an indictment of the Canon, just a measure of how good mirrorless cameras have become.