Canon 5D Mark III vs 5D Mark II : Who Should Buy the Mark III?

5d mark ii vs 5d mark iii

Canon 5D Mark III vs Canon 5D Mark II

How Does the Mark III Compare

With the unveiling of Canon 5D Mark III, photographers have a difficult new decision to make. Since the still-impressive 5D Mark II is staying in the Canon lineup (at a reduced price: $2,499.00), we must consider who would benefit from spending the extra $1300 on a 5D Mark III. Whether you’re buying your first 5D series camera, or you’re considering the upgrade from your 5D Mark II, the decision is equally difficult. After all, $1300 is not a trivial amount of money; it represents a 70-200 f/2.8L (or numerous other excellent lenses), or an Elinchrom Ranger kit, for example. If you find yourself asking “Should I buy the Canon 5D Mark III or the 5D Mark II“, the answer will probably come down to an assessment of your shooting style in conjunction with the three major differences between the cameras: the sensor, the auto-focus system, and the processor.

Before looking at these three factors, though, it may be helpful to get an overview of the differences between the cameras’ specs:

 Canon 5D Mark IIICanon 5D Mark II
Canon 5D Mark III - Light and MatterCanon 5D Mark II
Price Today: Amazon$3,399.00$2,499.00
B&H Price (March 21, 2012)$3499$2199
Sensor Resolution:22.3 Megapixel21.1 Megapixel
Native ISO Range100-25600100-6400
Expandable ISO Range50-10240050-25600
Auto-Focus Points619
Cross-Type Points41 (5 diagonal)1
Minimum Auto-Focus Light Levels-2 EV-.05 EV
Smallest Aperture that Allows AFf/5.6f/5.6
Maximum Frame Rate:6 fps3.9
Max Flash Sync Speed, Full Power1/200 sec.1/200 sec.
Shutter Release Lag:59ms73ms
Expected Shutter Life:150,000150,000
Metering Sensor:63 Zone SPC35 Zone RGB
Video Size and Rates1080p 24/25/30fps
720p 60fps

Max duration: 29 min. 59 sec.
1080p 24/25/30fps

Max duration: Approx. 12 min. (4 GB size limit)
Video Type.h264 codec with choice of 2 compression types:
1.IPB , smaller file size
2.ALL-I , higher image quality, larger file size
h264 .mov
Audio Recording:Stereo External
Mono Internal
Auto or Manual Levels

Stereo External
Mono Internal
Auto or Manual Levels

A/V Out
Viewfinder:Pentaprism, .71x magnification, 100% CoveragePentaprism, .71x magnification, 98% Coverage
Memory Slots1 Compact Flash, 1 SD1 Compact Flash
Weight860g (body only)810g (body only)
Battery Life950 with LP-E6850 with LP-E6

.

The Auto-Focus Systems

The auto-focus system is the easiest place to start because it’s where we find the greatest contrast between the two cameras. Those of you who use the 5D Mark II (or the Rebel T2i/T3i, which use the same basic AF system) are probably already aware of its limitations: it only has 9 AF point, and only one of them uses a reliable cross-type sensor. Still, it performs well in most circumstances. In a studio environment, it works well… and for most landscape and natural-light portraiture, it’s great too. Furthermore, despite its imperfections, it has been used by thousands of wedding and event photographers for years, and many of them have produced remarkable work, even in difficult conditions.

But for every great shot captured, there have also been great shots lost due to focus problems. AF on the Mark II is simply not fast, accurate, or reliable enough for professionals shooting sports, high-speed action, or any low-light events involving a lot of action. For years, many 5D Mark II owners have been hoping that Canon would produce a new version of the camera with the robust AF system of the EOS 7D.

Canon 5D Mark III's 61 AF Points

In this regard, Canon has our exceeded expectations. Instead of settling for the outstanding 19-point (all cross-type) AF system of the 7D, they gave the 5D Mark III the 61-point (41 cross-type) of the Canon 1D X, probably the most sophisticated AF system on the market today. The focusing points are not only numerous, they are high quality: 41 are cross-type, and 5 of those are dual-diagonal, high-precision, allowing the camera to quickly pull focus on virtually any type of detail. Enough said. If you have trouble focusing with the Mark III, the problem probably isn’t with the camera.

The Bottom Line: If your work is depended on fast, reliable auto-focus in any lighting situation, you probably can’t afford NOT to buy the new 5D Mark III. Journalists, event photographers, child-portrait and other wildlife photographers, this camera is for you. However (all joking aside), if you shoot fashion, landscape, portrait, and even low-light photography that doesn’t require top-speed AF, the 5D Mark II will more than suffice. The exceptions will be those photographers for whom 9 AF points doesn’t provide sufficient flexibility. While many photographers can focus and then recompose if necessary (when an AF point doesn’t fall exactly in the right place in the frame), this isn’t always practical for photographers shooting with the camera mounted to a tripod, or photographers working with an extremely shallow depth of field, such as f/1.2 lenses or shooting 1:1+ macro.

The Processor

The new Digic-5+ processor found in the 5D Mark III is probably the most powerful CPU found in any SLR, about 17x more powerful than the Digic-4 found in the 5D Mark II. In practical terms, though, that means that’s its able to handle large volumes of data at faster speeds, allowing the 5D Mark III to shoot RAW files at 6 frames per second, which is a substantial step up from the Mark II’s 3.9 fps. Naturally some of that processor power is also used to drive the 61-point AF system described above, and it also is available for higher quality post-processing of images (HDR, lens correction, etc) and processing video.

The Bottom Line: Again, the processor differences between cameras only really depend on how you’ll be shooting. If you’re shooting sports, you’ll likely want the higher frame rate. However, even many event photographers who shoot some action will be satisfied with the four frames per second of the Mark II.

The Sensor

High ISO Example, 5D Mark III, ISO 3200

Though shot at ISO 3200, when down-sized for the web, hardly a hint of noise remains. Click to enlarge. (Photo by Light and Matter contributer Jonathan Stankiewicz)

The difference in image resolution between the 21.1 megapixels sensor of the 5D Mark II and the 22.3 megapixel sensor of the Mark III is negligible, and if that were the only factor worth considering, I’d have ignored the sensor differences completely. When it comes to making prints, there will be no appreciable difference in image quality based on the difference in sensor resolution. But, of course, it’s not quite that simple.

The new generation of sensor found in the Mark III is also less noisy at high ISO settings. Initial tests have shown that on the Mark III, the differences in noise between ISO 800 and 3200 are minimal, and noise level at 12800 are roughly equivalent (but slightly worse) to those found in the Mark II at ISO 3200, at least when the subject is well lit. In the shadows, I find that there’s only about 1-stop of difference between the sensors. This means that for wedding and event photographers, the 5D Mark III can produce photos that are high quality at ISO 3200, and very usable (particularly with judiciously applied noise reduction) when shooting at ISO 6400, which is an impressive feat. Usable, however, does not necessarily mean first-rate; we’ll still get better sharpness, detail, colors, and tonality at lower ISOs if we’re making large prints.

If you’re shooting for the web or making mid-sized prints, on the other hand, even at ISO 12800, the colors, noise, and sharpness of images produced by the Mark III are remarkably good. Color, in particular, seems to be handled well by the Mark III; I’ve been impressed by how vibrant the colors remain at high ISO where they would become dull, muted, and blotchy with many other cameras, including the Mark II.

Canon 5D Mark III High ISO Comparison

Click to enlarge. Shot at ISO800 and ISO3200, the differences in image detail exist, but are minimal. This is 100% crop detail of the guitar image, above, and the same shot at lower ISO, both shot RAW with no noise reduction in post.

Canon 5D Mark III high ISO examples, 3200, 6400

Although ISO at 3200 is well controlled, relatively speaking, there is still significant loss of low-contrast detail. Beyond ISO 6400, it is worse, but can be improved with processing in ACR 7 or Lightroom 4.

The 5D Mark II also handles low light well, though, just not quite as well as the Mark III. I’d confidently shoot at ISO 1600 at weddings with the Mark II, and many photographers who are less conservative with their expectations happily shoot even higher.

The Bottom Line: Photographers who frequently shoot in low-light situations and need excellent high-ISO performance from their camera will benefit from the Mark III’s sensor, though not as much as they’d benefit from the astoundingly good performance of the Canon EOS 1 D X, which I briefly discussed here. With the 5D Mark III, shooting at ISO 3200 is now a viable alternative to shooting with ultra wide aperture lenses or using flash.

However, if you’re comfortable using flash or rarely need to shoot at ISOs higher than 1600, you won’t see a significant benefit in image quality when shooting with the Mark III, and the Mark II is still an excellent camera for studio and field work at low ISOs.

[The following images represent real-world usage, processed for the web, with moderate noise reduction applied in ACR7. Photos by Albany, NY photographer, Sebastien Barre.]
Canon 5D Mark III example, ISO 3200, Bar Scene

At ISO 3200, the natural light of the bar is captured with good color and little noise.

Canon 5D Mark III example, ISO 5000

Even at ISO 5000, with a little post work, the image is sharp and clean, still with minimal noise.

Canon 5D Mark III, ISO 12800

Notice that even at ISO 12800, the Mark III retains much of the fine detail and color of the scarf’s fabric.

Additional Considerations

When it comes to video, the Mark III has improved codecs and controls,  a headphone jack for monitoring audio, and the HDMI output is a high quality 1080i resolution when monitoring live capture (the 5D Mark II drops down to 480 or 540p, I’ve found conflicting numbers). While I’ve read that the image quality is somewhat improved, and it’s clear that the Mark III handles moire and aliasing better than the Mark II, I do not shoot video, myself, so I will leave the comparison of video features to someone who is suitably experienced.

The 5D Mark III also has new “Silent” shooting modes, which could prove to be very useful in certain circumstances. In “silent single” mode, the shutter noise is dampened to virtually inaudible levels, obviating the need for blimps or other sound-suppressors on TV/Movie sets, for example, but the benefit for wildlife and other candid photographers is clear as well. Rapid silent shooting is also available, but limited to 3 fps, in “Silent Continuous” mode.

It is also worth mentioning that the 5D Mark III has improved weather sealing. Canon claims that it is better than that found in the Mark II, but not quite at the level of the 1D X’s construction. The Mark III also has other modest changes that I don’t consider to be of much significance: in camera HDR processing, a higher resolution metering sensor (the old ones work just fine), and in-camera image correction (vignetting, chromatic aberrations, distortion), which can already be handled by Lightroom or ACR with aplomb, and who uses a multi-thousand dollar camera without appropriate software?

Who Should buy the 5D Mark III, then?

All of these factors paint a fairly clear picture of who would benefit from buying the 5D Mark III. Photographers who work in a studio with flash, portrait and fashion photographers, product photographers, and most landscape photographers won’t benefit from the features of the new model, since they don’t usually need the high ISO performance or rapid frame rates, and the 5D Mark II will remain their best choice. All of that extra money can be spent on higher quality optics, like the new 24-70 f/2.8L II.

Journalists, event and action photographers who frequently work under poor lighting conditions, however, will see improvements in focusing accuracy and shooting speed, and image quality at high ISO, though high ISO image quality will still be significantly lower than low ISO image quality.  Furthermore, wildlife, street, and some event photographers may find the “silent shooting” mode of the Mark III useful enough to justify the camera’s price.

Please Comment! This article has only been able to cover some of the main differences between the cameras. If you still have questions, or if you have any contentions with the article, please let me know in the comments section below. If nothing else, I’m always interested to hear whether people are finding an article helpful.

Photo Information: The ISO comparison photos in this article (guitar, stack of books) were taken by Jonathan Stankiewicz, a new contributor to L&M. Each image was shot in RAW format and converted to JPG in DPP with no noise reduction, so images shot in JPG format with noise reduction or post-processed images are likely to appear even better. High ISO night-life examples were taken by Sebastien Barre in Albany, NY, shot in RAW format, and processed with ACR 7, with minimal but significant noise reduction and additional clarity. Light & Matter would like to thank both of these photographers for their helpful and beautiful images.



27 Comments

  • Marcelo says:

    I think that the real benefit of the 5D Mk iii above the Mk ii is that it have a more reliable AF system and due this in events as weddings the result will be better. At the moment i have the Mk ii and i will move to the Mk iii due this factor. Also is impotrant to say that i can buy the f4 L series from Canon and i will have the combination of less aperture but better ISO performance, which eqals the light loss on the lens with the higer ISO performance… good and cheap combination!!!

  • john says:

    I think there is not huge difference between two machines. I have Mk2 version it is still superb machine. Down side of Mk2 is having only one cross point. If there will be a new sensor above 30mp, more powerful digic cpu and better sensor cleaning capabilities i may think to buy mk4.

  • angel says:

    Matthew, could you elaborate on the difference between the 2 cameras regarding the Minimum Auto-Focus Light Levels ? What are the implications in real life situations ?

  • Leon says:

    Thanks for the comparison here. I wish I’d have seen this two days ago before I got my mark iii. I still would have got it but now I’m even more excited about the purchase.

    Thanks again

  • Sam says:

    Thanks Matthew !!!
    It is a very nice post, you did the comarison between Mark II and Mark III very well.
    I have Mark II which is my first DSLR camera and bought it very recently.
    Mark II is really a superb and the best in its level. The advanced features of the Mark III are not required if we are not a really professional photographer. I bought the canon 50mm f1.4 and 24-105 L IS f4.0 lens using that $1300. Really happy with this combination.

    Thanks
    Sam

  • saikiran says:

    excellent review. I would like to ask you one question, i have limited knowledge in cameras and i am going to start a short film for a film festival i want to know if a canon mark iid would suffice, if not what are your recommendations and i was going to buy a rode shotgun mic for audio if you have any knowledge on this it would be of great help.

    • Hi Saikiran,

      The Canon 5D Mark II was really the camera that started the DSLR-film movement. It’s been used extensively in independent films and major motion pictures, so there’s every reason to believe that you’d get great quality with one. The Mark II also has a well-tested version of the Magic Lantern side-car firmware available, which is a big help to film-makers. The Mark III does have some advantages, but there’s obviously a significant price difference, too.

      Considering the extras that you’ll need to buy for serious film work, you might be better off with the Mark II if you’re on a budget. Inexpensive rigs are now available ( like the one made by “Fancier” here ), but you’ll still probably want an external monitor, etc..

      That said, I’m a photographer; I don’t do professional video work, generally… so I may not be the best person to ask.

      – Matthew

  • Simon Ng says:

    My budget is really limited. If I get the 5DMiii, I can only mount a 50mm F1.8 ii on the body. If I get the 5DMii, I can mount the 16-35mm F2.8 ii!! For now, the decision is no brainer. Will have to wait a year or two before uprading to 5DMiii.

  • Ahmad says:

    Great review! What are your recommendations: 5d mk III or D800?
    Thanks

    • Hi Ahmad,

      Sorry for the delay; I’m not sure how I missed your comment for so long! Busy week, I guess.

      Anyway, I think they’re both great cameras; the Nikon D800 is probably better for landscape photography; the Canon 5D Mark III is probably better for action/sports photography. They’re both great for low-light work (once the D800s images are downsized), they both have great AF systems.

      It really just depends on which one matches your shooting style.

      – Matthew

  • Wm Swain says:

    Great article… I think I am content with what I have (now I can buy the TS-E 24mm f/3.5 L !!!). I shoot primarily scenic/water/wildlife. When I heard about the possibility, some time ago, of the MK III I found I had to make a decision… Wait for it or get the MK II to compliment my other camera… the 7D. While I salivate at some of the improved focusing aspects and frame rate of the 5D MKIII I think I have made the right decision. I use the 5D for scenic, pano, low light, portrait, and water shots… The full frame is wonderful and a high frame rate is not necessary. The 7D is great for sports and wildlife/birding… having a more advanced AF and a higher frame rate it fills in the weaker spots of the 5D.

    For people already having either of the cameras mentioned and those who are looking for a second/back-up camera they might give some consideration to this combination. It is nice to go into the field with appropriate scenic/telephoto lenses already mounted on the frames… No missed shots when changing lenses or dropping them in the nearest puddle (my forte!). You also have the benifit of having a second frame when you might most need it. As noted there is a considerable price difference!

    • stacey says:

      your post hits the mark on my issue. I have a 7d and want and Mark III really bad, but can’t afford it right now. I have a offer from someone who has a brand new, hardly used Mark ii that they’d make some kind of deal/trade for. The 1st mention was $600 and then some lesson on how to use the camera or a photo session equally to another $600. Does that sound like a deal?

      • If you have a chance to get a 5D Mark II for $600, TAKE IT!  Or give me the email address so I can take it :) All joking aside, the Mark II was an excellent camera before the Mark III came out, and it’s still can excellent camera. I know several photographers who shoot with a 7D and a 5D Mark II, and the system works very well… usually shooting with the 5D, and switching to the 7D for fast action or when the crop factor on telephoto lenses is a benefit.

        – Matthew

      • Wm Swain says:

        I agree with Matthew’s comments Stacey… I am getting a bit “longer in the tooth” and as such it is sometimes a pain for me to pack both cameras and lenses on the “high trails” in the Pacific Northwest. In 95% of the instances, however, I have a really good idea of what I am after in the first place and just take whichever of the cameras that I will need for the day… When shooting in close to home, “no problems” with taking both.

        Of course, the one real advantage is now having two independent frames. Nothing worse than taking a trip or hiking in a few miles only to have a unit “spit up” for some reason.

        The only caveat to remember is (as you already have the 7D) that any EF-S lens you might have for the 7D will NOT work on the 5D MKII. Fortunately, I only had one… the EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8.

        There are some great “kit” prices out there that include the 5D MKII and the 24-105mm f/4 L lens. This is a great combination. Especially considering the full frame and low light capabilities of the 5D. The 17-55 makes a great “back-up” scenic lens on the 7D.

        The MK III is, it appears, a fantastic unit but I think, unless money is of no concern, the “combo” offers, by far, the best of both worlds.

        • stacey says:

          Thanks guys! I have been very happy the past few weeks having both cameras. I only take one and very easy to choose which. 7d for sports and when I need length and for when I want to be lazy and use the pop up flash like out with friends or at the kid’s school.

          Major thing that drives me nuts about the Mii is the 9 point focus, seems SO old school and is very hard to quickly get in the diagonal points, annoying! Besides loosing length on my lenses, 9 point focus system, and lack of pop up flash when being lazy for personal pics the Mii is fabulous! Now I just have to be sure not to covet the Miii when I’m teaching the person who is giving me the Mii in trade for my time… going to be hard! :)

  • Maciej Rothkaehl-Lenert says:

    That’s great article. I’ve been using my friend 5d mk ii when doing portrait and fashion photography and I’ve been very happy but… I want to do a sport photography and the landscapes as well. Decision is not so easy. We have 1d mark iv now in very good price! The fact is, for the difference in price between mk ii and mk iii I can get 85mm f/1.2. But in the price of the same mk iii we can get 1d. I don’t know what should I buy now to be honest… I want to buy my first canon with two carl zeiss lenses – 50mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.4 I’m not a professional photographer, mostly doing it for fun. Kind regards and thanks for any help in making decision :) Maciej

  • Chris Clements says:

    Sold 7D and 5D2 – Have had mine for 1 week now – Simply incredible camera – Well worth the $$

    • Hey Chris,

      Good to hear that you’re enjoying it :) How to you think the AF system compares to that of the 7D? I’ve always been pretty satisfied with the 7D’s system, but there’s certainly a little room for improvement on paper.

      – Matthew

    • #jealous.

      I, too, have a 7D and a 5D2, but getting the ONE 5D3 would mean that I would be without a second body when I do weddings. So this begs the question: should I continue doing weddings or just enjoy the fact that I would have the best of both worlds? Hmm….

       

       

  • Ok. Where’s my wallet?

  • Prasun Bhattacharyya says:

    I was considering an upgrade from my Canon 550D. This article has been most helpful. Now I can happily purchase the Canon 5D Mark II, for I know that this is exactly what I need. Thanks a lot to “Light and Matter”.

  • Samantha says:

    Great Article! I have already purchased the 5DM3… but this just affirmed my decision! As an event photographer I cannot wait to play with the new AF system! & ISO capabilities… I have a 5DM2 right now.. which I love but at receptions it does fight me a little too much… can’t wait to see what this beast can do!

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