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Thread: Apology to the 5D II

  1. #1
    can't remember Tannin's Avatar
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    Apology to the 5D II

    Members familiar with my posts will recall many and various grumbles about the Canon 5D II focus system. Representative terms employed include "primitive", "outmoded", "clumsy", "sub-par", and "worst-of-breed".

    Well, I was wrong and I apologise.

    Before I go into detail, let's review where the 5D II fits into things and refresh the memories of Nikonians and Pentaxians who might not have followed Canon models as carefully as they follow their own kit.

    The 5D Mark II was Canon's second consumer-level full frame DSLR. It came out in 2008, replacing the pioneering Canon 5D (now known as the 5D Mark I). The 2005 5D Mark 1 was the first consumer full-frame DSLR, and for a long time the only one. (The first full frame DSLR was the Canon 1Ds Mark II, which arrived - for those few who could afford it - in 2003.) The 5D Mark 1 was very successful. It was essentially a full frame sensor in a body changed as little as possible from the then-current Canon semi-pro crop body (the 20D), using all the same controls Canon users were already familiar with. Its weakest point was the focus system, which was slightly inferior to the 20D's. Possibly this was done for cost reasons, or perhaps they didn't want too many pros buying a 5D instead of a 1Ds II at double the price. In any case, for the landscape and wedding photographers the 5D 1 was aimed at, autofocus speed and flexibility was not a major issue.

    The 5D Mark II came along in 2008, and was a huge success. On release and for some years afterwards it was regarded as having clearly the best full frame sensor of any non-pro camera. The recipe was familiar: a semi-pro body similar to the best Canon APS-C model (at that time the 50D), matched with an outstanding hi-resolution full frame sensor. The focus system, for reasons never satisfactorily explained, was unchanged from the old Mark 1. According to rumour, Canon had planned an all-new and much better AF system for it but run into trouble and, as a stop-gap, gone back to the old Mark 1 system instead. Perhaps that is true, who can say? Whatever the reason, the otherwise excellent 5D II shipped with an autofocus system which was not only inferior to all other then-current Canon DSLRs (including the cheap 450D at a fifth the price!), it was also somewhat inferior to discontinued older models such as the semi-pro 40D, 30D, and 20D, and entry-level 400D and 350D.

    Understand that the 5D II has never had problems with focus accuracy - it takes beautiful sharp pictures - it just takes too long to focus and is fussy about locking onto details other models have no difficulty with acquiring, and all 9 focus points are squeezed into the centre of the viewfinder, only covering about a third of the screen. With a 5D II, there is not much benefit to selecting a focus point: they are all so close to the centre point that you might as well just use the centre point in the first place.

    Don't misunderstand: it's a wonderful camera in all other respects. I bought one and used it for years, and when that first one was stolen I bought another one the same. But the focus system is constantly annoying.

    However, today I used the 5D II in a different way and discovered that despite owning one for years I have been mistaken about the AF system all along.

    Let me work around to this by explaining my usual system first, and then coming to what was different about today. Normally I travel with four bodies. (This may seem excessive, but there is method in my madness. For one thing, I spend a lot of time in the dusty outback and don't like to change lenses.) The first rule of bird photography is that you can hunt for a rare and special bird for weeks without success, but the moment you don't have a camera ready, the damn things turn up and laugh at you. Many of my most memorable bird encounters have started with a chance sighting from the car. For this reason, I never travel without a camera ready for instant action, by which I mean set up with a suitable lens, and already configured for bird work: medium ISO (typically 400 or 800), AF servo, high-speed shutter repeat, aperture set (close to but not quite wide open mostly). With birds you practically never get time to change a lens. Also, I love to find landscapes along the way. So I generally do this: 7D on the 500/4 (ready for unexpected birds). 1D IV on the 100-400 (dual purpose: birds and landscapes). The 5D II gets the 24-105, also for landscapes. The 5D II is good for this: you get that wonderful low noise and detail resolution, and although you often have to focus and recompose, landscapes don't usually fly away, so that's only annoying, not disastrous. Meanwhile the poor little 50D sits neglected in my camera bag, no doubt forlornly hoping that I'll want to use the fish or the 10-22 and give it a chance to show that it can still take a decent picture if I ever let it. On arrival somewhere, ready to do some serious birding, I usually swap the 7D and 1D IV over - this puts the best camera on the best lens, and puts the camera with the most reach on the 100-400, which is otherwise a bit short for birding on APS-H.

    Today was different. First, my 7D is broken and the new 7D II hasn't arrived yet. Second, the weather was no good for birds (cold and windy, poor light) but excellent for rural landscapes - bare trees appearing out of the mist, rain on the cropfields, distant landmarks picked out by stray beams of sunshine poking through the clouds, there were all sorts of possibilities. So I set off for a day of landscapes. With no 7D today, I put the 5D II on the 100-400 (making it effectively a bit shorter, which is good for landscapes) and used the 1D IV on the 24-105. These were the two lenses I expected to want most (and as it happened the only two I used all day). Finally, just in case some wonderful bird turned up, I put the 50D on the 500/4. (Not ideal but what the hell? After all, the 50D was my best birding camera once, back when it was new and my beard wasn't grey.)

    Of course, the 1D IV was a joy to use, as it is with any lens. I love this camera. It's like driving a fine sports car, and makes all my other bodies feel like beaten up old trucks, even the 7D. The 5D II, on the other hand, was horribly sluggish with the 100-400. I've used the combination before, of course, but possibly not on a day with challenging light conditions (mist, rain, weird light, low contrast) and not-so-crisp subjects. (By not-so-crisp I mean, for example, a rounded hillside rather than a sharp-edged building.) Only once before have I ever seen the 100-400 so slow to focus, and that was when I abused it by mounting it on a 1.4 teleconverter making it into a 560mm f/8 and using the old 1D Mark III. Today, it was dreadful! Not just annoying, harmful. For example, because of the slow focus I missed a shot of a misty landscape with a train going through it. By the time the AF locked up, the train was gone, and they only run a few a day out here. In the end, I had to swap the bodies over, putting the 5D on the 24-105, which was within its measure. Later on the light improved and I swapped them back. And later still, I wanted a shot of a small, well-timbered volcano looking into misty light near the setting sun. The 5D II simply refused to focus. It hunted with excruciating sluggishness and eventually settled on a setting that was simply wrong. After mucking around with it for a minute, I swapped the 100-400 onto the 1D IV and it acquired the correct focus immediately and without the slightest fuss. Although I didn't do the logical thing and try the ancient 50D out on the same task, I've used 20D and 40D and 50D often enough in the past to feel confident that they would cope just fine, albeit not quite as effortlessly as the 1D IV.

    So I was wrong about the 5D II. It does not have the most primitive, outmoded, clumsy, sub-par autofocus system of any SLR I've ever used, it has by far the most primitive, outmoded, clumsy, sub-par autofocus system of any SLR I've ever used. I apologise humbly for my previous errors, and can only salvage my pride my pointing out that at least I was 100% correct when I said it was worst-of-breed.







    PS: Yes, there is a 5D IV in my future. Or possibly a 1D X. Or at very least a 5D III. By all reports the 5D III and 5D IV AF systems are in the same class as the 1D IV - i.e. superb: as much better than average as the 5D and 5D II were worse than average. But I have no intention of retiring the 5D II. AF aside it's still a wonderful camera which makes great images. It will simply get demoted to wide-angle duties. (Shhh! Don't tell the 50D. It feels neglected enough already.)
    Tony

    It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.

  2. #2
    http://steveaxford.smugmug.com/
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    Come on Tony, quit being the diplomat and say what you really mean.

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